Robert Baer spent 21 years working for the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) Directorate of Operations, serving mostly as an on-the-ground field officer in the Middle East. His first-person recounting of that experience in See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism probably should be required reading for anyone interested in how we got where we are today.
These days, he is traversing the more lush terrain of the novel, but he stays in touch with the real-world intelligence community and finds many of today’s trends to be troubling.
Baer admits that the youthful stunts he pulled in his early days—such as rappelling off the top of the Kennedy Center during a performance—probably would have precluded his entry into today’s CIA, but he’s doubtful that’s a good thing. The level of security checks in place now may be turning away the very type of people that make good agents, he says.
“At this point they just wouldn’t even look at you—no one wants to take any risks. It’s much more strict,” Baer told Security Management in between planes on the book tour promoting his first fictional work, Blow the House Down.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who have tried [and failed] to get into the outfit, and unless they are lying to me, they have very minor transgressions,” he says. “I think that as the government comes under more criticism, the less likely [hiring managers] are going to take any chances at all.”
Baer says the super-conservative hiring policy is crippling the agency’s effectiveness. The agency is not getting the talent where it desperately needs it—on the ground gathering information. That’s because only people open to and comfortable with various cultural experiences can get the goods while remaining inconspicuous and blending into their natural environment, says Baer.
“If you are a Yemeni living in Aden, you had better chew qat [a leafy narcotic], or be ready to,” he says. But that’s not the behavior of a cautious, timid soul. Rather, that’s the behavior of a daredevil who crosses the line now and then. And that’s what an agent needs to be—but those types no longer pass the security clearance, he says.
Baer has a suggestion for getting around the problem. He calls for different classes of security clearances. The recruit from abroad, who may not be as clean cut and pure a character as the agency now seeks, would not need to be granted access to the most sensitive intelligence within the agency.
“So you could hire the Pakistani, send him to Karachi, or Riyadh, or Mecca, and stick him in a mosque, and have him come out and tell his story, but you don’t have him sitting down and reading this compartmented intelligence,” says Baer. The current clearance needlessly gives access to all information inside, he says.
That could strengthen human intelligence (HUMINT) gathered in the field. But HUMINT is only one piece of the puzzle. Technology should not be discounted either, says Baer. He believes the best domestic information is gleaned through National Security Agency (NSA) methods, such as telephone taps. “You get people in unguarded moments and you can figure out a lot of things about them by listening to their telephone,” he says.
Equally critical are data mining operations, such as the examination of databases of phone and financial records, says Baer. The recent flap about the NSA spying on American citizens was overdone, he says. “They are building a giant phonebook, which you can do privately, so why can’t the government do it?”
The collection of an exorbitant amount of information that overwhelms the analytical side of spy houses has long been trumpeted as a major problem, but Baer says that is not the problem. “It’s not that the analysts have too much information, it’s that a lot of the stuff, they don’t see,” he says. “You have to get a software program that protects the source, yet lets the content go to the analysts. There are ways to do this.”
Analysts are often isolated in offices, but they need to get out in the field to know what they are looking for while sifting through the information, he says. “One of the problems we had in Iraq is that the analysts didn’t know who the exiles were,” says Baer. “They just saw this reporting. If they were actually out dealing with exiles…they would have understood what they were up against.”