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Home / Book Reviews / Who Guards the Guards?
Who Guards the Guards? A Critical Review of Books on Spooks, Kooks, Commandos, and Other Military Matters of High Importance
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"Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything
else thereafter."
-- Ernest Hemingway

“[T]hat we but teach bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague the inventor. This evenhanded justice commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice to our own lips.”
--Macbeth, I, vii 8-11

See No Evil: The True Story of A Ground
Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism

By Robert Baer
Crown Publishers, 2002
Hardcover $25.95
ISBN # 0609609874

Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret
National Security Agency
by James Bamford
Doubleday, 2001 Softcover $ 14.95
ISBN #0385499086

Inside Delta Force: The Story of America’s
Elite Counterterrorist Unit

By Eric L. Haney
Delacorte Press 2002
Hardcover $25.95
ISBN# 0385336039

Tailspin: The Strange Case of Major Call
By Bernard F. Conners
British American Publishing, Ltd., 2002
Hardcover $ 26.95
ISBN #0945167504

After September 11th, books written by ex-Cold Warriors who are bent on self-justification or after-action criticism or both seem to be advancing boldly on all fronts.

By and large, these books fall into the category of “Good Soldier Tells All.” They are hungrily sought by warrior wannabees, a large and ever-expanding market force that includes our current President [a former non-combat National Guard pilot of dubious distinction] and his VP [Cheney successfully dodged the Vietnam War draft three times; voted against honoring Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome claims; and was quoted as saying that he had “better things to do” than to serve his country militarily back in the 1960’s]. Yet these books are usually disappointing reads for all but the handful of former comrades-in-arms whose daring exploits shine forth in the author’s otherwise dark study of his own wounded and raging narcissism.

“Good Soldier” books are often so formulaic in their construction that they are utterly predictable. The personal transformation from goofy dumbshit civilian to merciless killing machine is not nearly as uncommon, interesting or as uplifting as these authors seem to think.

On the contrary, it is much more gratifying to witness these “Good Soldiers” discovering that their storytelling gifts have somehow survived the rigors of non-stop training and actual combat—as well as the daily psychological chokeholds placed upon them by testosterone-seeking vampires who have incarnated as certain commissioned officers, liberal politicians, the media, etc.

The fatal flaw in the “Good Soldier Tells All” genre is that the author’s lofty aspirations cannot escape the downward pull exerted by a paradox that is inherent in all attempts to relate the military experience. This paradox holds that you cannot hope to appreciate—let alone ever dare to judge or criticize—the achievements and sacrifices made by these “Good Soldiers” unless you, too, have walked a couple hundred miles in their boots while humping 80 pounds of gear in the pouring rain while mortar shells are landing all around, etc., etc.

Yet the intensity of military experience—particularly combat experience—alters the individual so profoundly and irrevocably that its participants seem virtually incapable of both evaluating and relating their experience in an objective, forthright manner. Of course, very few individuals belonging to a professional trade organization can pull this off, either. The menagerie of Big Lies, scapegoats and ad hominem attacks runs wild and free throughout the memoirs of corporate executives, doctors, lawyers and media moguls.

True introspection often leads to self-awareness and ultimately to great writing. But introspection is notoriously bad for morale, and bad morale is usually fatal to combat soldiers who have been lavishly trained for years to defy the limits of human endurance in order to terminate the human endurance of their adversaries.

This paradox is the source of the overwhelming poignancy and bitterness—if not necessarily that of the work’s literary merit—found in most “Good Soldier Tells All” books. These books are often the author’s last-ditch attempts to explain the inexplicable or defend the indefensible. The author’s final Mission Impossible is ultimately self-defeating, unfortunately, because of their own myopic outlook: their experience can never be validated by those whom the “Good Soldier” views as being either too weak or cowardly to ever share it, or too shallow or self-absorbed to ever feel the need for it in the first place. And to the “Good Soldier,” those two categories seem to constitute the whole civilian world.

Rarely do these works rise above the toxic levels of chronic self-justification and self-indulgent nostalgia that are peculiar to folks who have attained a sense of personal salvation through the military’s excessive regimentation of their bodies and souls.

If and when they do transcend beyond an authoritative bitch and moan session, however, “Good Solider” books often seem—and let me emphasize the word seem--to invite critical thought to bear upon certain military practices and objectives. But the primary military objective—the primacy of military self-esteem—is never subject to debate. Not ever. The military takes things seriously, as a matter of course, and the subject nearest and dearest and most serious to all military men . . . is themselves, or rather it is their self-image.

Let us see how this self-image fairs in the following books . . . .

Robert Baer is an angry man, and his See No Evil is an angry book. Baer, a CIA case officer who spent much of his life in such hotspots as Lebanon, Tadjikistan, and Iraq, has much to be angry about, of course. But what really chapped the ass of this Career Intelligence Medal winner is not that he often found himself the target of rocket-propelled grenades that were launched by Islamic fundamentalists. No, what really got him was when he came home and found himself close to being indicted for directing an “unauthorized” coup against Saddam Hussein, and even closer to being neutered, career-wise, by Anthony Lake, then President Clinton’s national security advisor, for transgressing two of the intelligence community’s Big Unwritten Laws:

(1) THOU SHALT NOT INTERFERE WITH BIG OIL

(2) THOU SHALT NOT INTERFERE WITH THE POLITICAL APPOINTMENTS OF YOUR SUPERIORS

Baer was a victim of bad timing. He was an unreconstructed Cold War Cowboy coming back to a peacetime United States just in time to suffer the worst fate of all for an operative: obsolescence. Magnificent satellite imaging systems and electronic signal intelligence-gathering equipment promised a so-called “cleaner” war of espionage. President Clinton had peace and prosperity on his mind, among other things more or less erotic. Then there was the unnerving spectacle of the FBI gleefully emasculating their arch-enemy—the CIA—after the 1994 arrest of traitor Aldrich “Rick” Ames [of course, there would be some joy in Spookville when the FBI’S mighty Robert Hanssen would strike out as an even more damaging double agent than Ames].

Baer found that the shiny halls of Washington were far more treacherous than the hot dusty slums of the Middle East. He came to realize that “the tentacles of big oil stretch from the Caspian Sea to the White House.” And then he arrived at an even more astonishingly ho-hum, where-the-hell-have-you-been conclusion that would shake his tough Cold Warrior foundation to the core:

I would also see how money, not lives or national security, skews so much of what takes place in the very places most charged with protecting
us all

Poor Bobby Baer! He came home from the he-man wars and some Goldilocks had eaten all of his porridge!

No, that’s not a fair image.

How about this one? The mighty centurion came back to Rome and found . . . (Gasp!) . . . RICH PEOPLE! DECADENCE! CAREERISM! CONFLICTS OF INTEREST!

WHO KNEW?!

I wonder . . . how much did we pay for this underwhelming, 5-watt insight from one of the most highly respected intelligence field officers of the last twenty years?

The US citizen/taxpayer/sucker/reader of Bobby Baer’s book is supposed to believe that a battle-hardened Super Spook is shocked to discover that our country’s poisoned fruits of success were harvested for over fifty years—over 50 fucking years!—by none other than Super Spooks just like Robert Baer, himself; secret agents who wormed their way into the woodwork of foreign countries in order for the good ole’ USA to shut these countries up, dress them down, and rip them off.

Baer’s make-believe credulity is obscene; if it is merely a manipulative ploy to gain sympathy for the National Defense Devil, even more so.

Now, people, let’s be as blunt as Robert Baer can be in his book. As a CIA case officer, Baer was a master con artist, extortionist and professional thief—and quite possibly a contract killer, to boot. The difference between him and a used car salesman from Hell would be very little, if only the used car salesman convinced you to give your car and all of your neighbors’ cars to him in exchange for some plastic explosives and some M-11 assassination weapons to use against the other used car salesmen on the block. Oh, and if you didn’t do that, you’d be dead within the year.

True, Baer knows where the bodies are buried—because he probably helped put them there. His agendas are definitely his own, and like a runaway Captain Kurtz, this man has gone far too deep into the spy world’s heart of darkness to ever see the light of reason again. His refusal to acknowledge the utter unpredictability of and miserable success rate for US-led covert actions around the globe may be the only instance of personal cowardice and stupidity this formidable man has ever known.

After September 11th, Baer’s skepticism of stand-alone high-tech espionage has been justified in spades. See No Evil’s assault on an intelligence community whose analytical skills seem to degrade in proportion to their obsession with job security seems timely and well-deserved, as well. Indeed, Baer’s righteous indignation towards so-called intelligence experts who refuse to mingle with foreigners in their own countries—because the foreigners talk funny or eat strange creatures, or because it might jeopardize the experts’ stock options or their post-retirement gig as a corporate security consultant—is the most convincing and provocative aspect of his book.

Perhaps the most intriguing parts of his book is what Baer tried to say but couldn’t: the CIA’s black-line censoring of his breathless tales of intrigue. And just when you think Baer is full of hot air, you read where he finds connections between US oilmen and Middle East terrorists. Following this tantalizing line “I also looked into reporting on the Saudi royal family” is the largest censor block in the entire book – 10 lines entirely obliterated.

Hmmm. Something he said about the Saudi royal family seems to have hit a nerve with the CIA censors. I guess we will have to wait forty years to find out what it was . . . .

An excellent counterpoint to Baer’s See No Evil is James Bamford’s superb Body of Secrets, an exhaustively-researched and masterfully-written history of the National Security Agency, the largest, most secretive and most powerful intelligence agency in the world. Indeed, with Baer’s work in mind, Bamford could have re-titled his book as follows: “Actually, We See and Hear Everything Quite Well” because, well, the NSA can pretty much do just that.

Bamford cleverly organizes his history of the NSA along the lines of human anatomy—our “Body of Secrets”—with chapters entitled “Memory,” “Sweat,” “Nerves,” “Fists,” “Blood,” “Spine,” and so on. The purpose is clear: the juggernaut that is our current intelligence apparatus was created by people, installed by people, interpreted by people, to be used to protect some people, and to be used to defeat other people.

The NSA did not start as an alien spaceship that landed in the desert and began using Terminators to take control. Well, not yet, anyway, although the NSA, through Lucent Technologies, is working on joining DNA strands with electronic components, as Bamford relates in the chapter entitled “Brain.”

As Bamford’s painstaking research illustrates, the NSA can never be more perfect, more reliable, or more stable than the people at the controls. The NSA may be symbolized by a sleepless electronic eye or by vast arrays of communication intercept antennae linked to Cray supercomputers, but its scientific spirit and patriotic intent are truly embodied by the MIT graduate in cryptology whose greyhound mind cannot stop chasing mathematical puzzles; by the radio frequency engineer who always wanted to travel and serve his country at the same time; or by the Persian scholar paid handsomely to listen in on his Iranian brethren.

But as former CIA director Robert Gates stated, the curiosity machines that were made to serve us now seem to be our masters; the machines have “the capacity to collect mountains of data . . . more raw intelligence data than our analysts can synthesize and our policymakers can use.”

That the human factor is both curse and blessing for intelligence agencies is painfully obvious in Body of Secrets. Bamford supplies thoroughly documented details of the obstruction and misuse of intelligence data by corrupt politicians and military leaders, alike.

His findings are not for the faint of heart.

The author tells of how for nearly thirty-five years, the NSA had hidden the fact the 1967 Israeli attack on a NSA intelligence ship, the USS Liberty, was deliberate, in order to keep the spy ship from passing on information of Israel’s fraudulent claim of self-defense [they had had attacked Egypt first] and of the Israeli slaughter of Egyptian prisoners in the Sinai [which were largely conducted by former General Ariel Sharon, whose repeated historical proximity to massacres seems more than coincidental].

Then there is the revelation that the first US president to use top-secret intelligence data merely to defeat certain corporate competitors was . . . [insert fake intake of breath here, as if in surprise] George Herbert Walker Bush.

But perhaps Bamford’s most disturbing revelation is how close this country came in 1962 to engaging in a war

in which many patriotic Americans and innocent Cubans would die senseless deaths—all to satisfy the egos of twisted generals back in
Washington, safe in their tax-payer financed homes and limousines.

“Operation Northwoods,” the demented dream of General William Lemnitzer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was nothing less than a deliberate plan to launch a secret terrorist attack against his own country in order to galvanize the American people into supporting a full-scale invasion of Cuba. The plan included such abominable contingencies as blowing up John Glenn’s rocket ship, hijacking commercial jetliners and exploding them into civilian targets, and invading former British colonies like Jamaica or Trinidad-Tobago in order to elicit British enmity towards and military support against Cuba.

The ten pages devoted to exposing “Operation Northwoods” were undoubtedly the most provocative—sickening, actually—in the entire 600-page book. Written before September 11th, Bamford’s withering assessment of the military’s refusal to abide by the constraints imposed by our Constitution—and of the military’s commitment to undermining civilian political authority and subsequently enlarging their own through planned “crises” or “acts of terror” which they, alone, are uniquely qualified to address—cannot be dismissed as mere political opportunism or hindsight heroics:

Lemnitzer was a dangerous—perhaps even unbalanced—right-wing extremist in an extraordinarily sensitive position during a critical
period. But Operation Northwoods also had the support of every single member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and even senior Pentagon official Paul Nitze agreed in favor of provoking a phony war with Cuba. The fact that the most senior members of all the services and the Pentagon could be so out of touch with reality and the meaning of democracy would be hidden for four decades.

Thus the dilemma that is central to Bamford’s scrupulous portrayal of our nation’s spy industry: who guards our guards? Asked in another way, in light of the growing sophistication and power of our electronic eavesdropping capabilities: how far can spying go before it degenerates into the paranoid’s nightmare vision of a being trapped within a mirror looking into a mirror?

Bamford suggests, as the result of his research into the UK-USA Echelon system of a world-wide “web” of electronic signals interception, the real issue is not whether Echelon or similar espionage systems can keep trade partners honest and rogue nations under wraps, but whether “Echelon is doing away with individual privacy—a basic human right”:

Disembodied snippets of conversations are snatched from the ether, perhaps out of context, and may be misinterpreted by an analyst who then
secretly transmits them to spy agencies and law enforcement offices
around the world
.

Bamford rightly fears the possibility of a “Kafkaesque world” in which accused individuals are detained and incarcerated without being told what their offense was—because both the content of the accusations and the means by which the accusations were generated are declared “classified” or secret:

Unchecked , UKUSA’s [Echelon] worldwide eavesdropping network could become a sort of cyber secret police, without courts, without
juries, or the right to a defense
.

I suppose it is a question of trust, or maybe one of national pride, as to whether you take comfort in knowing just how invasive and pervasive the NSA’s eavesdropping capabilities can be—or if it just scares the beejesus out of you knowing that the homicidal chimp occupying the White House and his Grand Inquisitor sitting at the helm of the Justice Department have such powers at their disposal. Either way, one can only benefit by reading James Bamford’s powerful and lucid exposé of the NSA.

Eric Haney was one of the founding members of Delta Force, America’s secret counterterrorist unit. His Inside Delta Force is a calm, humane, understated memoir of a superb athlete, consummate professional soldier, bilingual covert operative, and, based upon his narrative alone, a man who was able to preserve his considerable personal warmth and humor in the face of unspeakable adversity.

Haney adopts a novel approach to explaining how he was destined to find himself in an elite unit that is on permanent war mobilization status: genetics. Citing his Scotch-Irish heritage of “landless, illiterate, anarchic, and warlike people” who own nothing but “a good raw intellect and a tough body,” Haney feels that he was naturally selected for the rigors of constant “war-ready” deployment all over the globe: “wherever I am is my home.”

Make no mistake, though, that behind Haney’s north Georgia hillbilly facade is a brilliant and laser-focused mind. Sure, Hollywood has made much of the Delta operators’ ability to shoot aspirins out of the air with a rifle and to enter locked airplane cabins and barricaded buildings, emerging as swiftly and silently and remorselessly as bad dreams. But what doesn’t translate well through all of Hollywood’s burning kerosene, high-decibel explosions, and testosterone-laden dialogue is that Delta operators like Haney have the brainpower to baffle Hannibal Lecter and motor skills to conduct their operations with the cool precision of neurosurgeons. And Delta operators are not without a sense of the ludicrous, as Haney illustrates when he muses over the irony of learning how to pick locks and steal cars from prison inmates:

It’s sort of funny—those guys ply their skills and the government sends them to prison. We ply the same skills on behalf of the very same government and get paid to do it.

Yet time and chance happens to us all, even to Delta operators. Haney’s first real mission was the April 1980 aborted rescue of the American hostages in Iran, during which he was almost broiled alive by burning aviation fuel. The failure of the Iran mission also destroyed the self-esteem of Delta’s creator and commander, Colonel Charles “Charlie” Beckwith. “He was never the same,” Haney laments:

The failure of the operation seemed to completely deflate him. I never again saw a flicker of that fabulous internal fire of his. It fled, never to return.

Haney’s second large-scale mission was to have been the 1981 rescue of 125 American POW’S who were being held in Laos by the government of Vietnam. According to Haney, “Scuttled” is not the proper word for the treasonous and heart-wrenching events that doomed those prisoners. Haney names retired Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel Bo Gritz as the main culprit who, whether acting of his own egomania or on the behalf of yet-unnamed US government officials, served to compromise not one but two rescue missions [I seem to recall that Gritz played a similarly counterproductive role in North Carolina less than five years ago, during the federal manhunt for Eric Rudolph].

Among some of the operations that Haney will talk about during his “Reagan Years” are assignments in Beirut and Honduras, as well as his airborne assault on Grenada. He tells of conducting a year-long, billion-dollar strategic planning operation for the invasion of a small, poor tropical country “that had managed to get itself on the US Government’s shitlist” by deciding to tax the largest corporation on the island—a “huge and powerful American corporation.” The invasion never happened because, in Haney’s words:

The CIA did one of the things it knows how to do and do well. A young man in that small nation’s military, along with a number of his friends, was induced to revolt and commence a small-scale guerilla war. And surprisingly, one of the central tenets of the guerilla group’s manifesto was a provision firmly opposed to the taxation of foreign corporations.

By the mid-1980’s, Haney became disgusted by the tawdry corporate and political machinations that eventually require the support of lethal killers like himself. The mental and emotional cost of being a Delta operator “was more draining than anything else.” By 1986, Haney was beginning to feel “dirty and used,” yet he remained active in Delta training after 1986, whereupon he was stationed in Panama after being promoted, at the age of 36, to command sergeant major, the highest noncommissioned rank in the Army.

Inside Delta Force is one of the better “Good Soldier Tells All” books. Haney’s reluctance to cast aspersions upon any aspect of Delta operations is evident throughout the book, most notably in his almost maudlin assessment of Delta’s role in the Somalia mission [which is more honestly and convincingly explained in Mark Bowden’s book Blackhawk Down!] Yet this weakness is not unexpected, and it seems to be derived from a source of great strength—Haney’s deep and abiding personal pride in his participation in and creation of perhaps the most formidable fighting unit the world has ever known.

Historians will judge whether Delta operators were as cost-effective and as invincible as they professed to be. The average reader is left to ponder whether such extraordinary individuals as Eric Haney might have contributed more to this world in a noncombatant role. But Haney, himself, I don’t think has any regrets at all about his Delta experience: everywhere was home for him.

Although it is actually a “Good Air Force Major Gone Bad” story rather than a “Good Soldier Tells All” one, Bernard F. Conners. Tailspin offers an unparalleled insight into the disturbingly thin psychological barriers that exists between military genius and combat heroism on the one side, and criminal opportunism and homicidal recklessness on the other.

Tailspin is an ambitious book that ultimately succeeds in its multi-faceted approach. Conners has crafted a superbly-written literary work, an intense psychological thriller, a sensitive and compelling biography of a complex war hero, and a prodigious and convincing forensic examination of the 1958 Marilyn Shepherd murder case [for which her husband, Dr. Sam Shepherd, was unjustly convicted and eventually pardoned]. His study of the life of Major James A. Call is a major contribution to “investigative fiction” or “dramatized nonfiction” or whatever the hell they are now calling that genre in which the author relies upon scrupulous factual details to create a riveting and dramatic narrative.

Until Eric Rudolph came along and then disappeared again, Major James Call had been the object of the largest police manhunt in our nation’s history. A brilliant bombing strategist and navigator, Major Call also excelled during the Air Force’s escape, evasion and survival courses that it taught to its pilots during the Cold War. Call would use all of these skills to overcome the consequences of his “Tailspin”—his self-destructive descent into gambling, robbery, burglary and even murder, a descent that abruptly began after the unexpected death of his wife, whom Call worshipped. The consequences of this “Tailspin” would include a 106-day manhunt conducted by New York State police throughout the Adirondacks after Call engaged three police officers in a shootout. Even though the police fired first, Call was able to shoot them all, killing one of them.

Author Conners connects all the dots between Call’s travels throughout upstate New York, Las Vegas, and Cleveland, Ohio—the latter destination being the home of Dr. Sam Shepherd. There is absolutely no way I am going to blow the suspense and incredible ending to this tale by telling you anything more about it except to say the following: if you don’t think you can be framed for murder by the media, you have simply got to read this book. And if you think only Vietnam Vets had a tough time making the transition from combat to civilian life, you have to read this book.

© Copyright 2002 by KNS Maré