This post originally appeared on VICE UK
Robert Baer appears to have a knack for pissing off really powerful and dangerous people. The 62-year-old resigned from the CIA back in December 1997 after ruffling feathers by suggesting that dirty foreign money could have possibly been injected into the previous year's presidential race.
During his time in the agency, the father of four and Colorado resident was charged by the FBI with plotting to assassinate Saddam Hussein. That charge, he says, was weirdly nonsensical--why charge an American spy with trying to kill a man considered, at the time, to be one of America's most notorious enemies? Federal authorities ultimately declined to prosecute.
More recently, in 2011, Hezbollah suggested he was responsible for a car bomb that killed 80 people in Lebanon in 1985. He bats away that accusation as ludicrous, saying it's an attempt to discredit a special tribunal he was involved in that investigated the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.
Baer is now an author, and his most recent book, The Perfect Kill, delves into the politics of assassinations. Much of the book chronicles his attempts, while working for the CIA, to track down Imad Mughniyeh, also known as Hajj Radwan, a masterful and ghost-like Lebanese commando who used targeted assassinations to achieve militaristic and political goals for several decades. Baer never got his man, although Radwan was killed by a car bomb in Damascus in 2008.
We caught up with the former spook to talk about the art of political murder.
VICE: In the book, you say Washington doesn't understand the rules and workings of assassinations and how targeted political murder effects change and when it doesn't. Do you think that plays into the ongoing US failures in Afghanistan?
Robert Baer: Yeah. I don't think we understood that Mullah Omar has only limited sway over what is essentially a Pashtun insurgency and, although he was key in founding the Taliban, removing him wouldn't mean much of anything. And then you have groups, like the Haqqani network, that are so abstract to us you wouldn't even know where to begin to cut off the head of that to make a difference.
Is it fair to say the US can't assassinate the problem away in a place like Afghanistan?
In a place like Afghanistan the only thing you can do is what the Mongols did--go in and kill everybody--which obviously wasn't going to happen. We took sides with a Pashtun tribe that didn't have much support in the rest of the country. And so killing one guy or two or ten or a hundred wasn't going to make any difference.
You mention the Pashtuns' horizontal power structure and opaque politics and how the US never really knows what it's getting out of targeted killings or assassinations in Afghanistan because it doesn't truly understand the machinations of power there. Do you still feel that to be the case? And, as a follow-up, if that's true, how is that possible? The US is more than a decade into this war and its military still doesn't know how things work?
Ask the question: How many Pashtun speakers do we have? There was that guy in the Air Force, but he was assassinated.
You can't figure this out by sitting in Kabul in the Serena Hotel while hoping to understand what's happening in a rural insurgency. And you can't send a lieutenant from Kansas who speaks neither Dari nor Pashtun to the field and figure out what makes these people tick.
You mention the assassination of Anwar Sadat and how that changed very little in Egypt. Talk to me about the main differences between assassinations that prompt political change and those that don't.
If you're going to make an assassination work, the guy you're assassinating has to pretty much be a one-man show. I think the clichéd assassination we all refer to is Hitler. I think the Third Reich would have fallen apart if he would have been killed.
Also I think that [the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin clearly changed any chance of the Israelis and the Palestinians reaching a settlement. It died with him. He was accepted in the military and a large number of Israelis, and if he said this would work, people believed him. Once he was gone, any chance of a settlement disappeared with it.
Sadat was held in power by the military. And it's a group of generals. Any military dictatorship where there's multiple generals and also strong core commanders, it's not going to do any good killing that one guy.
In Pakistan, you can kill the chief of staff, but you have five core commanders. Any one of them could step up into his position and hold Pakistan together. Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, when we were looking at him, had eviscerated his military, including his son-in-law. Anybody who was a potential threat was eliminated. There was no bench strength in Iraq, as we've seen with the chaos. There's no general who has stepped forward to hold it together.
Let's talk about Hajj Radwan. I detected an admiration for him in your writing.
Well, it was his skill. He could narrowly channel violence and make things move. Unlike me. I'm clearly not an operator here. He clearly knew what he was doing. He was raised on the battlefield as a teenager and he understood that setting off car bombs against symbolic targets didn't get him anything, but when he was ready to murder, he understood the narrow channeling of violence, removing a single person.
In 1999, they got rid of the Israeli commander Gerstein. And that met the conditions of an assassination. They avoided war or further war and preserved force and the Israelis withdrew. That doesn't mean I'm on their side necessarily, but I could see where he was going with all this.
Hajj Radwan, a.k.a. Imad Fayez Mughniyeh. Image via Wikimedia Commons
You say in the book he invented modern political murder. What do you mean by that?
There was a series of attacks against our ambassadors, embassies, the Marines. He marched Hezbollah, his nominal sponsors, into power. I can't think of someone else who has done this. You've had coup d'états, you've had revolutions, but someone who has manipulated precise violence, I can't think anyone who was as good as him. I look at Bin Laden. He didn't put 9/11 together. That was a pickup team and he sort of blessed it and off they went. And I think ultimately, Sunni Muslims, if that's who he represented, didn't get anything out of it.
Hezbollah controlled the apparatus of the state in Lebanon. Radwan did a takeover of Lebanon with political violence. You and I can't go to Lebanon without coming to the attention of Hezbollah and them deciding whether we're a risk or not or a threat to them. Which I think is quite remarkable, this subtle takeover of a state.
Talk to me about how the legality of assassinations has changed. You make reference to President Reagan issuing an executive order banning assassinations in 1981. How has the law changed in the interim?
It completely changed. It's sort of like our attitude toward torture and renditions and violating the Fourth Amendment. We simply redefined the Constitution and redefined executive law to allow what clearly are assassinations, like Awlaki. By deeming people enemy combatants, we remove all their rights.
In going outside the law, isn't the US opening itself up to all sorts of fuck-ups?
I think we are. I don't think Al Qaeda or ISIS are existential threats to this country at all. It certainly wasn't time to suspend the Constitution, which we effectively did.
What about internationally? What does international law say about assassinations?
It's the problem of reciprocity. If we decide we can assassinate someone in a strange country like Mali, why can't they exert the same right to do it here?
You compare drone strikes to phone sex, saying the impersonal nature of drone strikes means they're not as effective form of assassination. What did you mean by that?
The worst is signature strikes. If there's a couple guys exercising in the field with Kalashnikovs and you say they shouldn't be there, well, they could be just the local narcos, or they could be local police force. I think there's so much evidence we've been killing innocent people. There's so many problems with that. Practically speaking, we're creating more enemies than we're destroying. But it also shows there's a vulnerability on our side.
The FBI charged you with crossing interstate borders to attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein. What was going through your head as they were reading off those charges?
I was thinking: This has got to be a joke. I've got no political sense at all. How could this ever look good if it ever gets out? The FBI is trying to put five CIA officers in jail for attempted murder against a man who we had legal authorities against. It's just dumb.
I think the FBI agents recognized that. They were just doing their duty. In fact they told us that this was just idiotic. It was just a complete, typical Washington screw-up. People were covering their asses.
Do you consider yourself an assassin?
Not at all. I was put out in the field, which if we had executed any of these operations, like against Saddam, the target for an arrest or a coup d'état would have died. But no one ever used that word. I'm just a person. I wouldn't go around saying I'm an assassin.
So, during your time in the CIA, you were never involved in the execution of a political murder? Is that accurate?
What was it like to be called out by Hezbollah for orchestrating a car bomb that killed 80 people?
I didn't realize what a sensitive nerve I touched. I wasn't a witness in the Hariri trial, but I got this call on the I-5 from Lebanon, a journalist friend of mine, and they're saying, "I'm watching you on TV, and they're accusing you of setting off a car bomb."
I knew I had crossed a line. I hadn't realized I was so much in their focus for Hezbollah to do a special TV show on it. And since then, Hezbollah got a copy of the book and they don't like it. They put me on some sort of list. Who knows what the real threat is.
That car bomb--it was pretty bad. There's no American responsible for it. I think it was the Lebanese Army who did it, acting on their own. I wasn't even in Lebanon.
Were you terrified?
Here's what goes through my head: Why bother with me? When they've got so other many problems in Syria. Problems around the world. Problems with Israelis who really are killing them. Why bother with a CIA guy who has been out for years who isn't a direct threat? I can't take it very seriously. I mean, I wouldn't set foot in Lebanon, but I basically can't go anywhere in the Middle East now. I've annoyed everybody. It's hard to do, but I know how.
They may stupidly think I had something to do with Hajj Radwan's assassination in 2008. They don't understand that, once you leave the CIA, you're gone. They don't want you back. I don't think Hezbollah understands that. They probably said, "Well, he used to target this guy, and he probably set this up."
What can the US learn from a guy like Radwan?
I think we have to learn that the politics have to be right. Hajj Radwan survived because in Lebanon they wanted the foreigners out of their country. He was riding a wave, and it was a matter of his pushing the politics to get what he wanted.
You can't go into a country where everyone is against you and make one political murder work. You're going against history. And you can't do an assassination that goes against history.
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