Ex-CIA agent targets assassin’s work
THERE’S no combination of words to describe what it must be like to centre a human being in your telescopic crosshairs — to see them so close you mistake feeling their breath — then, with all the pitiless detachment of a slaughterhouse, to pull the trigger. Even James Jones, a Second World War infantryman and the great war novelist, confessed that realistically describing combat is unattainable. And narratives about the human machinery that plans and terminates for political advantage are likewise imperfect and finite, especially when just about every executioner’s vow of silence would put any monastic order to shame. But then there’s The Perfect Kill, the latest work of the respected and prolific writer Robert Baer, said to be one of the most competent operatives ever moulded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and now a security analyst for CNN and an expert on the world of intelligence and the Middle East. There are two factors that distinguish Baer from the literary pack in modern, real-life espionage writing about the world’s deadly surgeons of political intrigue and murder: his combination 21 years of service as perhaps the best field officer the CIA ever had, and his impressive talent for putting on paper with style both his experiences and what he learned from them. The Perfect Kill is a unique twist in forensics that the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes would admire. Baer assembles the scary building blocks of the ultimate assassin while leading us through the fascinating, sometimes-lethal happenings in his own never-dull career. He also provides autopsies of other major intelligence events such as the failed assassination of the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the successful killing of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat. Fortunately, the perfect assassin he imagines remains on paper. However, he dwells at some length on the world’s greatest political killer in modern times that he hunted for 10 years and was assigned to erase. The man — Baer calls him “the Leonardo da Vinci of political murder” — was executed in 2008 by, Baer claims, someone else. Baer’s treatment of his topic is magnetic throughout the book because his writing is both macho and paternal, making The Perfect Kill a kind of cheeky blend of Steve McQueen and Father Knows Best. Baer also comes across as something of a philosopher. For example, he muses that the modern method of eliminating people with the politically popular drones often causes collateral damage of the innocent that increases enmity between adversaries. He says individual killings — one bullet, one person — have been found to be more effective in resolving conflict, partly because they are satisfyingly unambiguous and can be applied with surgical certainty. As he puts it: “A good kill speaks for itself.” In other words, it’s a little like a modern (but more violent) rewrite of Theodore Roosevelt’s dictum: “If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” Discouragingly, Baer thinks the modern CIA needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, explaining why he thinks it’s so inept in today’s intelligence world, and how it can be fixed. In a recent interview, Baer also concluded that the threat to world order posed by al-Qaida is amateurish compared to that of Islamic State (IS). He says the latter’s sophistication in technology, organization and intelligence-gathering is superior to that of many governments, and may be even equal to that of some of the major powers. The Perfect Kill is due to be made into a series for cable television. Another of Baer’s books, See No Evil, is a memoir of his time in the CIA. It was made into the movie Syriana, a porridge of political mayhem, corruption and killing over oil. George Clooney won an Oscar for his role in it. He played Baer. On the back cover of The Perfect Kill Baer is described as an assassin himself, but inside he makes no mention of his killing anyone. However, at one point he suggests announcing that you’re an assassin is intemperate and self-defeating. Maybe this confusion is emblematic. In Baer’s shadowy, murky world there’s sometimes the perfect kill, but there’s never the perfect truth. Barry Craig thinks he’s the perfect killer because he often bores people to death.
The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins