In his colorful 2002 memoir, See No Evil, the former CIA officer Robert Baer portrayed himself as a brash, swashbuckling agent, more Tom Clancy operative than geeky technocrat: someone at home in the dark places of the globe, someone who knew how to "mix up a potent cocktail called methyl nitrate" or make a bus disappear with 10kg of C-4. He emerged from that book as a tough-talking critic of today's CIA and a shoot-from-the-hip maverick who attributed the failure to thwart the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to the agency's cautious post-Cold War mind-set, its defanged, deskbound, red-tape-ridden ethos.
In Baer's dubious new thriller, Blow the House Down, the hero -- one Max Waller by name -- is a colorful, swashbuckling agent, more Bond than bureaucrat, someone equally at home in the Third World and a Four Seasons hotel, and equally adept at romancing the ladies, tailing terrorists and trans-ferring millions of dollars between secret bank accounts. He is a fierce critic of his careerist colleagues and political-minded bosses, and his cowboy attitude and obsession with nailing the identity of an Iranian terrorist get him suspended from the CIA.
Blow the House Down belongs to that limboland of fact and fiction, pioneered by E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. Mixed in with fictional characters are real people like John O'Neill, the former FBI counter-terrorism chief, who was killed in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center; and William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, Lebanon, who died in captivity after being taken hostage in 1984. No doubt these real people have been dropped into this novel to pump up the air of verisimilitude supplied by Baer's inside knowledge of CIA operations, but his decision to use their deaths as plot points in a high-decibel thriller feels cynical in the extreme.
In an interview with the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh (sent out by the publisher's publicity department), Baer has said that he tried, in Blow the House Down, to provide "an alternative scenario" to the events leading up to Sept. 11, a scenario "which may be true and which the 9/11 Commission could never go into that deep."
The scenario that he sets forth reads in these pages like an alarming hodgepodge of the plausible, the speculative and the absurd. The novel's fictional characters speculate that Iran might have had something to do with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11; that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, one of the central planners of those attacks, might have had links to Iran's Revolutionary Guards; that a mysterious Iranian (who might have had something to do with the kidnapping of William Buckley) might have had a myst-erious meeting with Osama bin Laden in Pakistan before Sept. 11; and that a dastardly American businessman -- who supposedly had close ties to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, assorted Washington neoconservatives and a right-wing member of the National Security Council -- used the attacks to make a killing on the stock market.
In real life the Sept. 11 commission and numerous newspaper and magazine articles have looked into Iran's links with terrorism, including ties between al-Qaeda and the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah, and evidence suggesting that members of al-Qaeda, including some of the Sept. 11 hijackers, might have used Iran as a safe transit point in their travels to and from Afghan-istan. The former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke wrote in his 2004 book, Against All Enemies, "When the Bush administration talked about Iraq as a nation that supported terrorism, including al-Qaeda, and was developing weapons of mass destruction, those comments perfectly suited Iran, not Iraq." And in See No Evil Baer asserted that "the Islamic Republic of Iran had declared a secret war against the United States, and the United States had chosen to ignore it."
But if Baer's intention in his new novel is to goad readers into a serious consideration of Iran's possible terrorist connections (a timely subject, given current worries about Iran's nuclear program), he fails in this mission by cavalierly mixing fact and fiction, the credible and the preposterous.
While there are some bravura set pieces in Blow the House Down and some suspenseful sequences that suggest Baer could one day produce a genuinely thrilling thriller, his story is painfully hobbled by its cartoonish central villain: the tycoon David Channing, a fire-breathing nihilist who embodies virtually every ugly trait imaginable (greed, bigotry, sexism, cruelty, hubris and contempt, not to mention an eager willingness to kill thousands of people in order to fill his own pockets) and who spews a disgusting stream of misogynist, anti-Semitic, homo-phobic vitriol.
There are other credibility problems as well. Although Baer uses his firsthand knowledge of tradecraft and out-of-the-way places in the Middle East to create some gritty, tension-filled scenes reminiscent, at best, of John le Carre's work, he creates an equal number of ridiculous scenes in which his hero seems to misplace his training and his common sense.
Would an experienced case officer, convinced that he is being trailed by treacherous enemies, sit down on an airplane, scribble notes to himself on a napkin and then leave that napkin in the seat pouch? Would he then pull out his laptop, type out more notes about the case he is working on and then stow the computer in the overhead rack while he goes off to get a drink?
Such ludicrous scenes, combined with Baer's more ridic-ulous inventions in his story, not only make for an unbelievable thriller but also subvert the more serious points he wants to make about terrorism, intelligence missteps and Sept. 11.
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