September 11, 2001, brought to a larger audience the controversy on-going for years among foreign policy specialists about the quality of U.S. intelligence on terrorism. One of the central theses of the critics is that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in particular has become incompetent at, or unconcerned about, "human intelligence"—putting operatives on the ground in hostile places, recruiting foreigners to supply information, and the other activities that spy novels and movies portray as the heart of the CIA's activities.
Baer agrees. An old-fashioned spy straight out of the stereotype, he agrees that the CIA has gone to hell. His theme is simple: the CIA cares more about bureaucratic politics and the latest Washington fad than about the collection of intelligence. He demonstrates this by recounting his extraordinarily colorful career, one which found him in all the worst places of the greater Middle East: Beirut in the midst of the civil war and attacks on Americans, Tajikistan during that country's civil war in the early 1990s, and Iraq in the mid-1990s (field-managing a coup attempt against Saddam from Kurdish-run northern Iraq).
His stories about the incompetence of CIA operations are truly frightening but all too believable. He describes field agents who lack basic language skills and whose interests are everywhere (from alcohol to lining their own pockets) but in the mission at hand. He has little respect for White House officials, particularly in the Clinton administration, whom he sees as out of touch with reality and hostile to spies. As for the substance of Middle East politics, he provides an excellent, ground-level perspective about cooperation among terrorist groups with widely differing politics but shared visceral anti-Americanism. In particular, he argues (with many details) that Arafat's Fatah organization was instrumental in the April 1983 bombing that leveled the U.S. embassy in Beirut, a bombing it carried out in conjunction with Hizbullah (usually ascribed sole responsibility for the operation).
One hopes that Baer exaggerates. His account suggests he is the sort of colorful character who might get carried away when telling a good story, but he does provide convincing details about the incompetence he describes.