Review: Robert Baer’s ‘The Perfect Kill’

THE PERFECT KILL: 21 Laws for Assassins. Robert B. Baer. Blue Rider. 310 pages. $27.95.
THE PERFECT KILL: 21 Laws for Assassins. Robert B. Baer. Blue Rider. 310 pages. $27.95.

Robert B. Baer’s new book is, unsurprisingly, about his life as a CIA operative. Since his departure from the agency in 1997, Baer has written several books — including See No Evil and The Company We Keep — unmasking the mysterious intelligence-gathering organization. One of these was even turned into a movie, Syriana, in which he was portrayed by George Clooney.

Now Baer exposes a niche of the spy world that we are all aware of but know little about: assassination. The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins is 310 pages of cold calculations, intriguing ethical debates and eyebrow-raising scenes, with Middle East history sprinkled throughout.

Baer, who’s also the author of Sleeping With the Devil (about Saudi Arabia) and The Devil We Know (about Iran), takes us on a journey through his past, to a time when his motive was to kill Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah, who was also known as Hajj Radwan. As we learn early on, Baer never succeeded in this pursuit, so most of the “21 laws for assassins” don’t come from his attempts. They come from what he learned about the modus operandi of Mughniyah, whom Baer came to regard as a master of the hunt. In 2008, Baer’s prey was killed by a car bomb in Syria. Baer says Mughniyah will go down in history as one of the world’s most deadly and effective assassins.

The book can be frustrating at times, as Baer is often found circumventing what he calls “my CIA censors.” He changes names and time frames. A number of statements begin with “I can’t say” or “I can’t prove”; these make you wonder how much of his secrecy has to do with governmental restrictions some 20 years after the fact and how much of it might be a form of bragging.

Each chapter — one for each “law” — explains not only the how of political murder but also the why. Baer’s lessons include statements that seem obvious (such as “don’t miss”), followed by explanatory material that details the implementation of the rules. The variety of his stories and experiences shows that he is truly an expert in his field.

Jessica Contrera reviewed this book for The Washington Post.