Ex-Agent Says CIA Dropped Ball

Jan. 17, 2002 -- In 1995, CIA field officer Robert Baer helped organize a rebellion in northern Iraq to topple one of the United States' worst enemies, Saddam Hussein.

To his dismay, his superiors declined to support the rebellion and he was ordered home to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. He was furious, but nothing prepared him for his reception: He found two FBI agents waiting to question him.

"They show me their credentials, read me my rights and say, 'You are being investigated under murder-for-hire statutes,'" Baer recalls. The FBI began an investigation into whether he had privately attempted to assassinate the Iraqi president — something that is illegal under U.S. law.

Baer says the charges were based on a "silly rumor" and there was never any assassination plan. He was eventually exonerated, but it took a year to clear his name. By then he had had enough.

After 21 years of service, many of them fighting terrorism on the ground in places like Lebanon, Bosnia, Syria and Sudan, Baer resigned from the agency. The failed Iraqi rebellion was not the first time he felt the CIA had missed a major opportunity.

Baer believes the CIA's excessive caution and reluctance to make more use of trained field officers like him left the United States open to the kind of terrorist attacks that came on Sept. 11.

"We basically closed down .... the CIA closed down in the '90s," Baer said in an interview with ABCNEWS' John Miller airing tonight on Primetime Thursday. "I think we are paying the bill for ignoring terrorism for all those years."

The CIA said in a statement that it had achieved "some extraordinary successes" in the war on terrorism since Sept. 11, and that they were based on the agency's long-term antiterrorism efforts. "We could not have achieved what we have post-Sept.11 if we had not been focused on the war on terrorism long before," said agency spokesman Bill Harlow.

Trained for Action

Baer joined the CIA in 1976, after studying foreign affairs at Georgetown University. He became a case officer in the agency's Directorate of Operations, the branch responsible for gathering information. The agency trained him to jump from planes and use weapons and explosives.

After an initial tour in India, Baer had two years' training in Arabic and went on to spend most of his career in the Middle East and North Africa.

As one of only two Arabic-speaking officers at the CIA's counterterrorism center at the time, Baer spent much of the 1980s in Lebanon, whose civil war had made the tiny country and its capital, Beirut, a hotbed for terrorist activity.

Frustration in Beirut

As Baer recounts in his newly published memoir, See No Evil, he became obsessed with investigating the still-unsolved April 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, which killed 63 people, including 17 Americans. Seven of the dead were CIA officers.

Beirut was divided into Christian and Muslim sides. Baer says he developed an information-gathering network on both sides, tapping phone lines and cultivating sources inside mosques and among the shadowy figures drawn to the chaotic city. As the civil war raged on the streets, the city's bars were crowded with people like Colombian drug traffickers and Russian arms dealers. Baer himself once bought an anti-tank weapon from an arms dealer — to keep in his car in case he ever needed it.

Posing as an eccentric Belgian aid worker interested in archaeology, he traveled to the Beka'a Valley in eastern Lebanon, which was a base for the Iranian-backed Islamist group Hezbollah.

Baer says all the information he gathered led to one man: Hezbollah security chief Imad Mughniyah. Baer wanted to go after Mughniyah, whom he also suspected of involvement in the October 1983 Marine barracks bombing, which killed 241 U.S. soldiers.

A local warlord offered to kill Mughniyah with a car bomb, but Baer declined because of the U.S. law forbidding assassination. He wanted to seize Mughniyah and his associates and bring them back to the United States for trial. But he realized that was impossible.

"It was too expensive to go after them. The CIA didn't have the capability nor the willingness to start going in, shooting it up with the terrorists in Beirut," Baer said.

Mughniyah went on to forge an alliance with Osama bin Laden, according to Baer, with bin Laden's Egyptian allies meeting with Mughniyah on at least one occasion, in July 1996.

Left in the Lurch

In the 1990s, Baer found himself in Iraq, where Saddam remained in power despite his defeat in the Gulf War.

With no CIA case officers stationed inside Iraq, Baer volunteered to coordinate anti-Saddam efforts among dissident Iraqis. In January 1995, he and four other CIA officers crossed into northern Iraq from Turkey, traveling by foot.

Baer thought the time for a revolt was right, with the Iraqi economy in tatters and army morale low, with soldiers deserting. "We had a window then — it was an absolutely crucial window — to get rid of Saddam Hussein," he said.

Baer established contact with Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi and Wafiq al-Samarrai, a senior Iraqi general who had just defected. Baer says they developed a plan for Chalabi to lead an insurrection by Kurdish tribes in the north, giving Samarrai an opportunity to launch a military coup in the capital. The idea was that the insurection would drive Hussein to take refuge at his favorite fortress near his hometown of Tikrit, where Samarrai would box him in with a unit of tanks and take control of the country himself.

Samarrai was putting himself at great risk — Baer had heard stories of Saddam executing army officers by immersing them in acid — and the general wanted assurances that the United States would recognize his new government and not stand in the way of the coup.

Baer says he wrote to his superiors in Washington about the plan, but got no answer. "They ignored it," he said.

Finally, with less than 36 hours before the insurrection, an answer for the Iraqis came, direct from the White House: "We believe there is a high risk of failure. Any decision to proceed will be entirely your own."

With no U.S. support, the fragile coalition collapsed. One of the Kurdish leaders turned on the others, making the coup impossible and forcing Samarrai to flee the country. Chalabi ended up leading a revolt with what was left of his forces. As predicted, many Iraqi army units deserted and joined the revolt, but the effort eventually failed when they ran out of ammunition and supplies. "I think a lot of people died," said Baer. "I can't tell you how many."

Field Agents or Clerks?

Baer says he loved his work as a CIA field officer, and the agency honored him after his resignation with a Career Intelligence Medal in 1998. But he believes the agency's focus changed during his 21 years there, from gathering human intelligence in the field to relying on electronic surveillance and analysis back home.

"There aren't enough people on the ground. There aren't people trained," he said.

Many in the CIA regard Baer and his ilk as "cowboys," and his career was controversial within the agency.

Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, who headed the CIA's counterterrorism center in the mid-1980s, acknowledges that Baer could be seen as a cowboy. "It may be," he said, "but you need some of those — and I would argue you need a lot of them."