Another Spy Book

I don’t usually do book reviews although I did discover a new take on “To Kill a Mockingbird” that is making the circuit of editors looking for a home in someone’s literary review magazine. Still, I feel compelled to comment on Robert Baer’s new book, “The Fourth Man.” I haven’t read the book but I have read several reviews and articles about the book, its subject and its conclusions. Baer did interviews with a number of former CIA counterintelligence personnel and it appears he is telling the story of how Aldrich Ames, Edward Lee Howard and Robert Hanssen could not have been responsible for exposing some of the agents who went missing in the 1970s and 80s. According to the articles the story is about a special investigative group set up to look at the problem and how the name of the CIA senior officer they came up with just happened to be the officer charged with overseeing the investigation. I’m sure it’s an intriguing read, BUT…

How do you know when an author doesn’t know diddly about the CIA? When they call CIA Operations Officers “Agents.” If they don’t know and understand that extremely basic fact then how much else have they mangled in the translation from interview to page? Now I know Bob Baer and it is true he had little formal counterintelligence experience but he should know that Ames, Howard, Hanssen, Nicholson, et alia were not “Double Agents” as they are referred to in the reviews and articles. They were just straight forward “agents, sources, penetrations, or assets” for the Russian intelligence services. When you misuse a basic term within the premise of your argument how can we then put much faith in the rest of what you want us to believe.

Still, the story has merit but looking for a spy is not always the answer. Spies get blown (exposed) in all manner of ways. Many times it is the spy’s fault; they spend too much, make a verbal slip, are seen somewhere they aren’t supposed to be or ask the wrong questions in the office. Sometimes they are sloppy; sometimes other counterintelligence apparatuses lead to their exposure, like National Security Agency intercepts leading to the identification of U.S. Persons acting on behalf of other governments or terrorist organizations. Sometimes a friendly service will pass on information that, when parsed, sifted and perused, provides the name of a potential spy and the eventual investigation proves it. Sometimes it is sloppy tradecraft on the part of the spy’s handler. We like to think we’re better than that but I can point to a number of cases where sloppy tradecraft or just plain bad luck was responsible for the agent’s compromise.

So, just because a spy or a couple of spies are blown, does not mean you have a mole in your midst. But, in this case, there was an investigation and a tentative, yet unverifiable, result in that investigation. Ames once left a briefcase of classified documents on a subway and was routinely drunk in the afternoon. Howard attempted to lie on his polygraph. Hanssen confessed to a priest. Nicholson went weird in Bucharest and he should have been investigated. Any of these agents might have been spotted by a sharp counterintelligence service as was Howard. Alas, the others, while reported for their suspicious behavior, were not caught early on, as they should have been.

Some of this story of a fourth man was referred to by Milt Bearden and James Risen in their 2003 book “The Main Enemy,” not all the investigative details or the continuing speculation, but enough for the reader to grasp the difficulties of counterintelligence work when you don’t know if your assumption about there being a spy is even correct. This morning Risen published his own comments so you might want to look them up. Remember, the investigation was based on this premise, “If there was a spy who could have compromised these cases who was it most likely to be?” Without direct input from the Russians or a confession on the part of a CIA officer it would be almost impossible to legally prove espionage or even that a mole was responsible for the compromises.

Were I the author or the editor of “The Fourth Man,” I might have done a little more work re the title. I’m sure the desire is to make an allusion to the Cambridge Five but “The Fourth Man” is also the title of a Dutch horror movie and a Jack Reacher story, both of which you have to make your way through if you’re looking for the book online. But, in truth this story isn’t about the Fourth Man, but the First, since the argument is the unexplained compromises occurred before Ames, Hanssen or Howard began spying. Thus, the person being looked for isn’t the fourth, but the first. The title fails in drawing the hoped for allusion with the British spies because they were a ring aiding one another and the three American spies cited in this book all worked independently. I’m sure the book is an interesting read; Bob has always been good at telling a story and I’ll read it as long as it’s available on Kindle.

For the record: With the exception of James Risen, I know all the people I’ve named in this article, as well as those not named, as in the suspected senior officer and the investigators.

2 thoughts

  1. Baer worked for me twice; briefly, but long enough to know that he is bright but undisciplined and a bullshit artist. He was an Arabist, and as far as I know, never worked in CI and retired as a fairly junior officer. Risen is an intel junkie who has published a lot of uninformed crap.

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