Memoir Literature


Baer, Robert. See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism. New York: Crown, 2002.

According to Gellman, Washington Post, 17 Mar. 2002, "Baer leaps from these pages as a zealous and creative man, courageous to the brink of recklessness, and altogether lacking the political and diplomatic judgment that an intelligence agency needs at the top. What the book does well is provide a spy's-eye view of CIA intrigues by one of the agency's best. And it makes a persuasive case, with much amusing evidence, that the CIA lost interest in the skills Baer had to offer....

"Baer can write authoritatively on one page and with cartoonish fancy on another.... [He] adds an intriguing chapter to the literature on the Clinton administration's betrayal of Iraqi coup plotters in 1995. But he undermines the reader's trust with assertions that then-national security adviser Anthony Lake masterminded an FBI investigation meant to punish Baer for his role. No one who knows the mutual loathing between Louis Freeh and the Clinton White House will buy that."

Peake, AFIO WIN 31-02, 5 Aug. 2002, and Intelligencer 13.2, finds that See No Evil is "a memoir of disillusionment written in a positive style, not the bitter tone of those who wrote because they could not cope with the demands of the clandestine life.... Baer's comments on the tradecraft of espionage as practiced on the ground ... will enlighten historians and laymen interested in the profession.... This is a fine memoir, one of the best ever written." To Berkowitz. IJI&C15.4, this book "is a great read." The author "is direct and honest ... and tells a good story."

Clark comment: I enjoyed reading Baer's See No Evil. The words flow in a spritely fashion from the page, and Baer certainly touched plenty of potentially important events in less frequented parts of the world. Much of what he writes rings true whether or not the reader is familiar with the details of each episode he spotlights. That does not mean, however, that he has captured the "capital T" truth.

Baer's view is that of the classic field operative -- essentially, "if politics/Headquarters/ Washington hadn't screwed it up, we could have pulled it off." It is true that too often those making the decisions back in Washington do not share the field operative's intimate knowledge of the situation on the ground. But it is just as often true that the person in the field has little understanding of the factors at play beyond his/her vision.

Baer complains that some Headquarters-based personnel considered him a "cowboy." From reading his memoirs, I have to conclude that they were correct. I would argue, however, that the CIA and the United States need a few such cowboys, although we probably should not put them in charge of things.

Baer, Robert, and Dayna Baer. The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story. New York: Crown, 2011.

Goulden, Washington Times, 14 Mar. 2011, and Intelligencer 18.2 (Winter-Spring 2011), sees this as "one of the better insider accounts of life in the modern CIA." For Schickel, Los Angeles Times, 16 Mar. 2011, this book "is curiously weightless -- all windup and virtually no delivery. It offers a few hints about their 'trade craft' but nothing that radically alters" what you know from elsewhere.

For Kanon, Washington Post, 14 Mar. 2011, says this "is a breezy, often fascinating account" of the authors' "CIA romance, with tradecraft details and war stories thrown in to make it catnip for any fan of espionage fiction." Wippl, IJI&C 24.4 (Winter 2011-2012), comments that what he misses in this book "is some direct acknowledgment" that the Baers' "individual lives in the CIA were worthwhile and made them what they are." See also, Rohde, New York Times, 18 Mar. 2011.

Bagley, Tennent H. Spymaster: Startling Cold War Revelations of a Soviet KGB Chief. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2013.

Peake, Studies 58.1 (Mar. 2014), and Intelligencer 20.3 (Spring-Summer), finds that this work is both "a biography of retired KGB general Sergei Kondrashev and a memoir of former CIA officer and author Tennent 'Pete' Bagley." Although not everyone will agree that Bagley has gotten it right, "Spymaster actually provides some new material on Cold War espionage about which many books have been written. It has raised the bar, but not ended the debate."

As Fischer, IJI&C 27.4 (Winter 2014), notes, Bagley's last book (he died in February 2014) will continue to fuel the fire around the defection of Yuri Nosenko. In Spymaster, Bagley reveals that "the primary source for Spy Wars was Sergey A. Kondrashev" who "is the spymaster" of this book's title. "Kondrashev's version of Penkovsky's unmasking will ... perhaps cause some to reject it as unbelievable." Neverheless, "[e]nough detail can be found in Spymaster to warrant a second look at the CIA-KGB spy wars and perhaps revise some of the conventional interpretations of Cold War intelligence."

Bagley, Tennent H. Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007. [Click for reviews]

Bearden, Milt, and James Risen. The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA's Final Showdown with the KGB. New York: Random House, 2003.

Clark comment: The authorship of this work rests with a 30-year CIA veteran whose assignments including running CIA operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s and Soviet operations in the 1990s (Bearden) and a New York Times reporter who covers intelligence matters (Risen).

Finding this "a most interesting and very readable account of the conflict waged between the intelligence agencies of the two powers," Friedman, CIRA Newsletter 28.3, concludes that the story "is guaranteed to hold the reader's attention." Similarly, Peake, Studies 48.4 (2004), states flatly that "[t]his is a splendid book by any measure."

Prados, Washington Post, 27 Aug. 2003, notes that Bearden's book "vividly demonstrates" that "his Cold War résumé covers the full gamut of clandestine operations.... Bearden provides a lively picture of how the officers at CIA headquarters reacted to the world of Soviet intelligence." One of the book's weaknesses that it "is preoccupied with its story and short on analysis or introspection.... In addition, Bearden is completely silent on some matters.... Yet these are small gaps in an arresting, large-canvas history." This "is a first-rate account from the front lines of the Cold War."

For Stein, NYTBR, 27 Jul. 2003, "[i]f there's a more revealing account of spies at work, it's classified." However, "[t]he revelations of 'The Main Enemy' are more in the details than the substance.... But the book unveils in astonishing detail a number of C.I.A. operations unreported or only rumored until now." Drew, New York Times, 4 May 2003, focuses on the book's assertion that "four of more than a dozen Russians caught spying for the West in the mid-1980's could not have been betrayed" by Ames, Hanssen, and Howard. This leads to a conclusion that there is "an as yet unidentified traitor" within the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Bissell, Richard M., Jr., with Jonathan E. Lewis and Frances T. Pudlo. Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996. JK468I6B55

Shryock, WIR 15.6, sees Bissell's memoirs as "thoughtful, candid, provocative, and ultimately puzzling." However, at times, the author "conveys his thoughts in a stiff, disorganized, and even excessively lawyerly manner." Falcoff, National Interest, Winter 1996-1997, finds the book "informative and stimulating," despite "its unexciting prose and a tendency to flatten what must have been far more dramatic events."

For Immerman, Choice 34.2, this work is disappointing but "nevertheless has value. It provides a succinct history of some of America's most dramatic Cold War initiatives and insight into the mindsets of their architects." Chambers concludes that "[t]here are no major disclosures. However, Bissell's personal recollections do add a new and useful viewpoint to the history of these operations." Click for a full review by Chambers.

"Methodological problems" with Bissell's memoirs are raised by Westerfield, Studies (Winter 1998-1999). Noting the clear acknowledgement that the "actual writing was done by [Bissell's] two collaborators," Westerfield also is concerned that "the posthumous additions (not clearly delineated ) obscure throughout what words were ever personally approved by Bissell and what ones were not."

Borel, Paul Arnold. Along the Way: Fragments from My Three Score Ten Years. Great Falls, VA: River Bend House, 1986.

These are the gentle and fond memoirs of a very nice man. There is virtually nothing controversial or startling revealed here. Nonetheless, what Borel has to say is not unimportant, given that his CIA career spanned the period 1947 to 1972. Borel was the recipient of one of the 50 "Trailblazer Awards" presented during the Agency's 50th anniversary celebration.

Breckinridge, Scott D. The CIA and the Cold War: A Memoir. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993.

Periscope 18.2 provides the following biographic data on Breckinridge: "For three years, 1954-1957, he was the CIA briefing officer for the White House Staff. He represented CIA before the 1975-1976 congressional investigating committees. He was on the Inspector-General Staff at CIA from 1962-1979. He dealt extensively with the Church Committee on Covert Action issues." IJI&C 8.1 adds that "Breckinridge ... served for six years as [CIA's] Deputy Inspector General."

Mapother, CIRA Newsletter 14.2, believes that "[i]ntelligence officers will find the book illuminating.... The author's prose ... is not sprightly, but it is sober.... The author has done considerable service: to the CIA ... and to the reader." Surveillant 3.6 comments that there are "[m]any stories by those on the sidelines but their 'facts' are not always correct. Just because someone was in the vicinity he may not have known what was going on above and below him."

Bush, George. Looking Forward. New York: Doubleday, 1987.

The former DCI (1976-1977) provides circumspect coverage of his tenure in a position that was a brief interlude in a busy life.

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