[Robert Baer has rankled the CIA by disclosing ‘secret intelligence information’ in his new book. And he’s not changing a word.]

The CIA is demanding that a celebrated former agent remove passages from an upcoming book that claims that high-ranking members of the Saudi royal family have been involved in political assassination plots and the training of Chechen rebels with apparent ties to Al Qaeda.

The CIA has contended in a letter to the ex-agent-turned-author, Robert Baer, that one passage about the alleged assassination plots contains “secret intelligence information” that can’t be disclosed without violating the terms of a secrecy agreement he signed when he joined the agency in 1976.

But Baer told Newsweek he has no intention of complying with the CIA’s demands. “Basically, I’m just defying them,” Baer said in an interview. “I don’t see where they have a leg to stand on-unless the First Amendment is totally gone.”

In fact, unbeknownst to the spooks at Langley, their objections may already be irrelevant-at least if their main purpose is to keep the sensitive information about the Saudis out of the public domain.

In a letter faxed to Baer on May 30, C. Bruce Wells, acting chairman of the CIA’s Publications Review Board, strongly admonished the author that until the dispute about one of the passages was resolved, “you should not show this material to anyone not authorized to see it,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by Newsweek.

But just as that warning was being sent, Baer’s publisher, Crown, a division of Random House, was mailing out review copies of his book. Although the review copy includes some blacked out portions requested by the CIA, it also includes the very passages about the alleged Saudi assassination plots and terrorist training that the agency appears to regard as most objectionable.

The controversy over Baer’s book, entitled Sleeping with The Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, could well result in a CIA lawsuit against Baer or conceivably even criminal prosecution for disclosure of classified information, according to legal experts. It also threatens to open up yet another front in the ongoing debate over whether the CIA and its political masters in the Bush administration are being overly protective of Saudi Arabia in the war on terror.

The CIA is currently fighting a similar battle with the Congress, refusing to declassify major portions of an 800-page report by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees that contains evidence uncovered by investigators of possible Saudi government connections to some of the 9-11 hijackers.

Baer, 51, who served for years as a CIA undercover operative in the Mideast, makes even more sensational allegations, laced with harsh language that seems designed to roil Saudi sensitivities. He depicts Saudi Arabia as a “power keg waiting to explode” and describes the country’s royal family as a corrupt monarchy that is “hanging on by a thread” and is “as violent and vengeful as any Mafia family.”

One of his chief targets is Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz-Saudi Arabia’s “grim sheriff”-who as the longtime overseer of the security forces, is the Saudi official most responsible for working with the FBI and CIA in prosecuting the war on terrorism.

Baer depicts Nayef as largely indifferent to the terrorist threat. He recounts one incident after the 1996 bombing of a U.S. military barracks at Khobar Towers in which the interior minister stiffed visiting FBI director Louis Freeh, repairing to his yacht anchored off the coast of the Red Sea while the FBI chief was forced to consult with lower-level aides who knew nothing about the bombing case.

But the specific allegation that seems to have drawn the agency’s most ire is Baer’s claim that Nayef had twice sought to murder a leading Saudi dissident. “In the mid-1990s, [Nayef] was behind at least two attempts on the life of Muhammed al-Massari, the leader of the London-based Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights,” Baer writes. Baer suggests that Nayef’s aborted assassination plot helped drive Massari, who had fled Saudi Arabia in 1994, more closely toward the extremist thinking of Osama bin Laden.

The May 30 CIA letter signed by Wells contends that the agency’s Publications Review Board-which vets all book manuscripts by former employees-has “confirmed unequivocally” that the passage about the alleged assassination plots is “secret intelligence information” and is “properly classified.” The letter also seems to imply that Baer could have only learned about the alleged plots through his work at the CIA and that the material is therefore “subject to protection” under the terms of his secrecy agreement with the agency.

But Baer said he learned about the plots after he retired from the CIA in 1997 and later confirmed the information with a former Jordanian intelligence official who had knowledge of the incidents. In addition, another former U.S. intelligence official had independently told Newsweek about the alleged plots nearly a year ago-and reconfirmed the story in an interview this week, providing more details than are contained in Baer’s book.

According to the former U.S. intelligence official, the CIA was tipped off by Jordanian intelligence in 1995 that one of its undercover assets, a Palestinian extremist, had been contracted by the Saudis to assassinate Massari. At the time, Massari was living in London and, through his Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, was bombarding his exiled homeland with faxes, accusing Saudi royal-family members of corruption and human-rights abuses.

“There’s no question that the Jordanians told us about the contract,” said the former U.S. intelligence official. What especially upset U.S. officials is that this was the second time Prince Nayef was believed to have attempted the assassination of Massari, the former official said. He had been previously warned not to do so a year or so earlier-and was now doing so again, said the source. “The important thing was that it happened once-and then it reappeared,” said the former intelligence official. U.S. officials quietly passed the word to Prince Nayef that “we thought it would be a very bad thing” if anything happened to Massari. “We never accused him [Prince Nayef],” said the former official. “We never confronted him directly. This was embarrassing to the Saudis, and we’re not in the business of embarrassing the Saudis.”

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy did not return phone calls seeking comment on the allegation. (The Saudi Embassy recently wrote a letter to The Atlantic Monthly, which has published an excerpt from Baer’s book without the Massari allegation, accusing the author of “fantasy” and “flat-out misrepresentations” about the kingdom.) In early 1996, the British government-under strong pressures from Saudi officials-sought to deport Massari to the Caribbean island of Dominica. But the government of former prime minister John Major later abandoned the effort in the wake of protests from human-rights groups.

Another sensitive if perhaps more problematic allegation that the CIA is objecting to involves another leading member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh. Baer cites secret “Russian intelligence reports” claiming that in June 1998, a group of 40 Chechen rebels “were quietly brought to a secret military camp located 75 miles southeast of Riyadh” and “trained in explosives, hand-to-hand combat and small weapons.” Prince Salman, a brother of King Fahd, “was the camp’s sponsor,” he writes.

Baer provided Newsweek with an English translation of what he said was one Russian intelligence document he relied on for the claim. (He says he got access to the documents as a result of consulting work he did, after he left the CIA, for an Argentine oil company that was competing for Caspian oil concessions.) The document cites, as the basis for the information, an undercover informant for the Russian military who reported that there were “a little over 200 trainees in the camp” and that the students, in addition to their paramilitary training, received intensive religious indoctrination.

“The students are taught that they are at the spearhead of a holy struggle for the purity of Islam, against the traitors to the faith,” the document reads. “Among those named as enemies of Islam were the leaders of the Central Asian republics, Turkey, Qatar and the United States. The trainees are taught to be merciless toward the enemies of Islam and to be ready to sacrifice themselves in the name of Allah.”

The Russian intelligence document also claims that graduates of the camp had been sent in the past to Afghanistan-which was then Al Qaeda’s headquarters-as well as other countries. Citing the information provided by the undercover informant, the report states that Prince Salman, “visits the camp every 4 to 6 weeks under the name of Mr. Hassim.”

The intelligence report provides no other information to corroborate the informant ‘s claim. A senior U.S. diplomat in Riyadh contacted by Newsweek said the claims about the training camp should be “taken with a grain of the salt.” The official said he was unaware of any intelligence to support the idea that such a camp existed outside of Riyadh and that high-ranking Saudis would be “extremely reluctant” to import terrorists onto their soil.

Asked today if he believes the claims in the Russian intelligence document are true, Baer said: “I have no way to tell… I believe somebody in Russia believed they were true. It’s sort of like the intelligence on Iraqi WMD. It’s not rock solid.”

Baer received widespread publicty last year for an earlier book, “See No Evil,” recounting his career as a “ground soldier in the CIA’s war on terrorism.” He got into a wrangle with the agency over the contents of that book, as well, and at one point the CIA even threatened to go to court to block publication. The agency later backed off. A CIA spokesman refused to discuss any aspect of Baer’s new book or what legal steps the agency make take. But the spokesman added the idea that the agency was trying to protect the Saudis is “nonsense.” The purpose of the agency’s prepublication review of book manuscripts is “to identify information for deletion only to the extent necessary to prevent harm to national security,” the spokesman said.

A Bashful Attorney General?

Is Attorney General John Ashcroft ducking the press? At first blush, the question seems odd given that Ashcroft is known as an inveterate news hound who never misses a chance to appear before the TV cameras or call a press conference to announce the latest Justice Department indictment in the war on terrorism. But this week he has been strangely silent about the Justice Department inspector general’s report finding “significant problems” in the way the department detained over 700 illegal immigrants after the 9-11 terror attacks and held them in harsh conditions for months before realizing they had no connection to terrorism.

His silence drew vocal protests from reporters today when Ashcroft appeared at a press briefing with U.S. attorneys to boast about the department’s record in the war on terrorism. After reading a brief opening statement, in which he clicked off figures citing how the Justice Department has issued more than 18,000 subpoenas and search warrants since 9-11 and identified “hundreds and hundreds” of terrorist suspects inside the United States, Ashcroft rose from the table and walked out, leaving his deputies to conduct the rest of the briefing and answer questions from the press.

Some irate reporters then interrupted the briefing and demanded to know why Ashcroft wouldn’t stay and address the issues raised in the I.G.’s report. “The attorney general has other matters to attend to,” said Barbara Comstock, the department’s chief spokeswoman. But not everybody was pleased. A handful of reporters-including a Newsweek correspondent facing a Terror Watch deadline-walked out as well.

Behind the tiff are increasing tensions between top department officials and the news media. Another Justice official later griped that major news organizations had distorted the I.G.’s report, leaving out exculpatory information-such as the I.G.’s findings that no department official had violated any laws in the handling of the detentions. “Why put him [Ashcroft] out there so they can write another round of bad stories?” griped the official.

That may come anyway. Ashcroft is due to testify Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee, and the I.G. report is expected to be front and center in the questioning. More fodder, no doubt, for “bad stories.”

This piece ran on June 4, 2003 on MSNBC