Published on Sunday, March 3, 2002 in the Observer of London
'Bombing Saddam is Ignorance'
Robert Baer, the ex-CIA man in Iraq during the failed uprising in 1995, says the US is not in a position to strike against Iraq because it does not understand anything about the country
by Henry Porter
Robert Baer's objections to an attack on Iraq could hardly be principled. As the CIA's point man in Iraq during the failed uprising in 1995, he encouraged dissident groups to believe that the United States wanted the overthrow and death of Saddam Hussein. Yet Baer, whose memoir of life in the CIA, See No Evil, is published in Britain tomorrow, is appalled at the idea of a US strike against Iraq today.
'If the US is to bomb Saddam and his army until there is no army, what comes after that? No one is discussing the ethnic composition of Iraq or what Iran is likely to do.'
Few in America appreciate the tribal ethnic and religious faultlines that run through the Middle East as Baer does. Iraq is particularly divided. In the south there is a Shia majority which now looks to Iran for support. Occupying the geographical and political center of the country are the followers of the Sunni sect, which includes Saddam's tribe, and in the north are the Kurds, who are split into two warring parties, the PUK and the KDU.
'The US is in no position to rejigger this because we don't understand anything about the country. If I were the Iranians, for instance, I would try to set up a state in southern Iraq and add three million barrels a day to my account. That could begin to rival Saudi Arabia. Of course, I don't know this is going to happen, but the US government doesn't know either. The heart of the debate is about taking out all Saddam's tanks in a couple of weeks.'
Baer worked for the CIA's Directorate of Operations for 25 years, with postings in Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, Tajikistan, India and Europe. His devastating portrait of the agency's decline adds much to the understanding of why America was caught off guard on 11 September, but as important is what he has to say about American sluggishness when it comes to institutional reform.
Towards the end of his time, he searched CIA computer for files on subjects that interested him, for example, the Pasdaran (the Iranian Intelligence service), the Saudi royal family and Syria.
'You know what? There was nothing there. Nothing. They didn't have anything. That's America now, you know. It can't reform.'
After a quarter of century abroad, Baer hardly recognizes the States and is appalled at the level of public ignorance.
'There is no debate,' he says. 'People will not address the question of Palestine in the context of the World Trade Center attacks. It's not in the terms of the discussion. They simply believe that Israel has the right to defend its democracy like the US does. They don't understand that Israel gives no democratic rights to the Palestinians whatsoever. They don't see that it's not a democracy.'
An affable but watchful man in his late forties, Baer is aware that the CIA is mightily displeased with his first literary effort. It can't help that the book has been on the New York Times ' bestseller list for four weeks in a row; that Warner Brothers bought an option and hope to develop the project with the team that made Traffic ; and that Baer is never off US television, often doing three national shows in an evening.
He seems to have few regrets about leaving the CIA. 'I would rather drive a taxi than serve in the CIA,' he says convincingly over lunch at the Alistair Little restaurant in West London.
'Don't ask me how it happened, but the people who work in it just don't match up to the people who got to Silicon Valley or the people who make cruise missiles or design derivatives.'
It's in the innocuous detail that Baer's book is telling. At one point he remembers taking over from a female officer in the Paris station and being handed her list of contacts and agents. When he followed them up, he found that instead of using them to gather intelligence she had been trying to recruit them to a religious sect. The serving US ambassador to France was also involved in the sect. When the two of them were observed handing out leaflets in the street, the French security service thought some kind of operation was in progress.
With good reason he is a pessimist about the CIA and US foreign policymaking. Examples of incompetence abound in See No Evil . In 1986, he was contacted in Germany by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood who wanted a meeting. He went to Dortmund and listened to Syrian contacts propose an intelligence alliance against President Assad. He wrote up a report (on a typewriter, whose ribbon he destroyed afterwards) and sent it to the US embassy in Bonn. A message came back that they weren't interested.
But that was not the last he heard of it. In the wake of 11 September, 16 years later, the FBI contacted Baer to say that associates of the Syrian contacts had been involved in al-Qaeda. That channel, closed down so peremptorily, might have led them to Mohamed Atta.
Over lunch we circled the problem of Iraq. He mentioned that it is easily within Saddam's power to forestall the long-announced air attacks from US bases in Diego Garcia. He could, says Baer, 'simply move his tanks into Syria and proclaim that he was going to liberate the Palestinians', thus pitching Israel into a war with an Arab state.
If there is a fault in Baer's analysis of the Iraqi problem, it is that while he acknowledges Saddam's willingness to use force against civilians he does not believe that the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction is anything but defensive.
Baer says we should look at it through Saddam's regional mentality and that his chief concern is, as it always has been, Iran.
See No Evil, by Robert Baer, Crown Publications £12.99.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002