It was 2009, roughly a month into part of my official certification course to become a Staff Operations Officer at the Central Intelligence Agency when I learned the wonders of the Counterintelligence (CI) Case Review. With his new book, “The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins” it seems Robert Baer took to them with as much gusto as I did. Mostly thrashing about until some semblance of order was achieved, allowing me to state my opinion and finally be done with the whole thing.
As backstory, a CI Case Review or file review is a comprehensive investigation and analysis of an operation or recruited asset. It involves sitting down with (depending on your vintage) large case file folders of documents or sitting in front of a computer sifting through electronic case files in the Agency’s system. The goal for the reviewer is to pull out the main parts of the case, detail them, reviewing them to make sure they make sense, then in the end to come up with a clear point of view on the subject. IE – is this a valid recruitment and are they giving us good intelligence or have they been fabricating their information?
In his new book Baer draws from his own decades old stack of notes on 3x5 cards (his own case file, as it were) to tease out a narrative around the life and “works” of Imad Mughniyeh aka Hajj Radwan. Mughniyeh was a mysterious member of Hezbollah and agent of the Iranian government. That description isn’t really explaining enough about him, but needless to say he is believed to be the driving force behind the many Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad Organization bombings and kidnappings carried out from the 1980s until his death by car bomb in Damascus, Syria in 2008.
Baer has long claimed to be deeply affected by the 18 April 1983 suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Lebanon, Beirut. This is quite understandable, especially given the damage it, along with the later barracks bombing and kidnappings did to the CIA’s mission in Lebanon and his ties to the mission there. I was not connected to Khost, Afghanistan, but the 2009 suicide bombing at Camp Chapman has had a lasting effect on me. It happened to my colleagues, some I knew or knew of. So I get the purpose of the book and its sole focus on who Baer believes masterminded Hezbollah’s terror campaigns and assassinations.
I find myself split on the book, however. It has so many caveats about his memory, his points of view. Baer freely admits to changing parts of the narrative to protect sources and methods ostensibly to appease the CIA’s Publication Review Board (the board that reviews all works by former CIA officers, including this review I might add, to ensure no classified information is released) but I can’t help but feel quite a bit of the intent behind this is actually to help bolster the existing narrative and direction of the book. That’s fine in a sense, but it detracts from an otherwise authoritative discussion on the topic of political killings, seen through the eyes of Mughniyeh and Baer’s search for him over two decades.
In one sense The Perfect Kill is a big mess that just seems poorly edited. In another it reads a bit like an operational report from a Case Officer in the field. Unpolished reporting that contains useful information among the verbal detritus. The 21 rules should be enough of a guide to keep Baer on track, but at times they seem like an unnecessary diversion. Even Baer admits that he has no clue if Mughniyeh followed such rules. Its hindsight that seems to add the context, for all we know Mughniyeh could have just been extremely lucky.
There's a certain charm to it that is no doubt my own personal bias coming into play. Having been on the inside and around such personalities (though he was gone before I arrived) I admire parts of his personality but dislike the ego. Which brings me to another point on caveats. They are an easy out to cover for unnecessary chest puffing. This is a criticism I’ve felt applies to Baer for some time now. In The Perfect Kill he goes so far as to freely admit, as if almost bragging, that he comes to his conclusions without the assistance from Officers still within the Agency. He states that since leaving in 1997 he hasn’t kept in contact with anyone on the inside, and he comes at these conclusions based on his years of experience and open source research. While this seems logical, his previous experience often times gives the public and media he appears with the impression that he does have contacts inside Langley. Anyone with recent experience can easily see where he gets it wrong with regards to the current internal CIA climate, for example. Ego and chest buffing is no substitute for cold hard facts. The whole idea that Baer so freely tells of actively working to personally target Mughniyeh is troubling to me. Obviously I can’t say if it’s legitimate or not. And that’s the point; in the spy world (as in life) perception is reality. That reality is then something you can market to sell books. Somewhere along the line truth itself becomes victim to creative assassination.
It was interesting to see his point of view soften towards Jennifer Matthews, one of the victims of the 2009 suicide attack in Khost Afghanistan. I remember reading his GQ editorial at the time where he rails against the Agency for sending someone so unqualified to the Chief of Base position in Khost. Now it seems he’s focusing more on the intended damage by al Balawi. I’m sure he still believes that the National Clandestine Service is lacking in seasoned operations officers, its only a shame he didn’t see fit to stick out roaming the halls for long enough to repair his “Hall File” (Agency speak for reputation) after being investigated by the FBI. That retelling is one of the better highlights in the book, if I do say so myself. I hadn’t been aware that the Gollum-like figure of Ahmed Chalabi was involved in that debacle as well.
All in all I stand with my original assessment. The Perfect Kill is not unlike a published, yet unpolished version of a CI Case Review. An airing of details as he knows them followed by his personal view that the United States is bad at political killings because they don't know targets intimately enough. His contention is that political killings should always be local affairs, used to cut out a malignant cell, rather than trying to crush an ideology. He believes that this is something Mughniyeh understood, and we likely never will. I can't find a fault in that really. Looking at the drone program I am not sure it’s done anything to actually help us. It’s apparent that Baer would agree, though he’s unlikely to agree with me that he’s not quite the resident expert on the world that he would like us all to believe.