Blow the House Down

Blow the House Down

by Robert Baer


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Former CIA operative Robert Baer pushes fiction to the absolute limit in this riveting and unnervingly plausible alternative history of 9/11.

Veteran CIA officer Max Waller has long been obsessed with the abduction and murder of his Agency mentor. Though years of digging yield the name of a suspect—an Iranian math genius turned terrorist—the trail seems too cold to justify further effort. Then Max turns up a photograph of the man standing alongside Osama bin Laden and a mysterious westerner whose face has been cut out, feeding Max’s suspicion. When the first official to whom Max shows the photo winds up dead, the out-of-favor agent suddenly finds himself the target of dark forces within the intelligence community who are desperate to muzzle him.

Eluding a global surveillance net, Max—in the summer of 2001—begins tracking the spore of a complex conspiracy, meeting clandestinely with suicide bombers and Arab royalty and ultimately realizing the Iranian he’d sought for a decades-old crime is actually at the nexus of a terrifying plot.

Showing off dazzling tradecraft and an array of richly textured backdrops, and filled with real names and events, Blow the House Down deftly balances fact and possibility to become the first great thriller to spring from the war on terrorism.

Also available as a Random House AudioBook and an eBook

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400098361
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 01/02/2007
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 385,305
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Robert Baer spent twenty years running agents from inside the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, operating against Hizballah, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations, and “was considered perhaps the best on-the-ground field officer in the Middle East” (Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker). His memoir See No Evil was a New York Times bestseller and inspired the movie Syriana starring George Clooney. He lives in Colorado.

Read an Excerpt


New York City; June 21, 2001, 11:02 A.M.

"Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge, this is Selma. How do you copy?"


"Baton Rouge, no movement. Che is still at his last."

"Roger that, Selma. Maintain your current. Over."

The twelfth floor of the Deutsche Bank building on Park isn't a bad perch on Midtown: close enough to the pavement to spot the twenty-something MBAs, cell phones glued to their ears, bullshitting about make-believe deals; just high enough to appreciate the grid, the grandeur, how easy it would be to bring it all down with a dirty nuke. But there I go talking shop again.

London's more cosmopolitan. Paris more tarted up. For stolen wealth per square inch, there's no place like Geneva. But Manhattan is where the real money is. Something like half the currency in the world flows electronically through this city every day of the year. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the trillions zinging around the local cyberspace. All that money gives the city a sort of divine energy, and Madison Avenue writes the Bible, selling crap no one can afford to people who don't need it, from Edsels to Viagra and Brazilian butt lifts. No wonder the jihadists go to bed every night dreaming of pulverizing the place. (The fact that one in three Jews in America lives here doesn't hurt, either.)

Personally, I've had my fill of pulverized rubble. Beirut, Khobar, Nairobi—I know the way it smells when it's still smoking and soaked in blood, and how easy it is to make. Load a pickup with half-full acetylene tanks, fertilizer, and fuel oil, and you can take down most anything man-made that you can get under or inside.

I used to think spending the best parts of my life in the worst parts of the world was worth something, but my employer saw things otherwise. I'd reported one too many unpalatable truths, poked Foggy Bottom in the eye one too many times, told my own seventh floor to fuck off in one too many ways. "Intelligence" may be the snake oil we sell, but the one absolutely inexcusable character flaw inside the Beltway is candor.

After a quarter-century in the field, headquarters called me home early and put me out to pasture in an office park near Tysons Corner. The plan was to tie me up watching over a flock of retirees until I shuffled off into my own sunset, but that couldn't happen until I hit fifty, four years from now. In the meantime, I was working off a time card: eight-to-five, no weekend duty, all the "personal days" I needed. That's what I was doing right now: taking a Thursday to see friends in Midtown. Another gaper in the capital of grit. Or so I thought.

"Hey, c'mere and have a look," I said, staring down at Park. I tried to put a little urgency in my voice, enough to pry Chris Corsini away from his high-performance, posture-fit Aeron chair and triple-wide LCD screens. But Chris was a commodities trader. The only things that got him excited were seasonal draws on oil inventories and his annual bonus.

"No, I'm serious. Come here and take a look at these two."

Chris sighed as he pushed himself to his feet. "What's it now, Max, King Kong on the loose again?"

That's what I liked about Chris: Ever since I'd rappelled down the side of Sproul Hall into the dean's office, back in our undergraduate days at Berkeley, he'd decided I was a headcase. But unlike a lot of our classmates, he never held it against me. Maybe I helped balance out the picture-perfect wife in Darien, the three way-above-average pre-teens, and the metallic silver Porsche Carrera.

"There," I said, pointing him toward the corner of Forty-ninth and Park, but Chris wasn't seeing what I was.

"Hmmm, let me think a minute." He was drumming his fingers on the marble sill. "Ah, the three smokers in front of the UBS building across the street! Sky's falling! I'm moving everything into gold."

"Take another look."

"At what, Max? Help me out here a little."

"Those two," I said, directing his eye to a guy and a girl, maybe in their late twenties. "The hip pair in front of Quick and Reilly."

The guy was hip, all right: mini-dreds, black wife-beater, patched black suede pants, Timberland boots, no socks or laces. The girl was basic black, too—faded bodice and denim bottom with built-in creases, carrier bag hanging from her shoulder—except for lavender highlights and a pair of those Puma arsenic orange-and-powder-blue sneakers.

"You see something I don't?" Chris asked.

"Can't be sure. Maybe it's that they don't look very comfortable in those uniforms, like they'd put them on for the first time today."

Chris hung by me a moment, made a kind of pitying cluck with his tongue, then walked behind his desk and sat back down. "Max, I'm curious to know how you make it on your own in this world. You're nuts."

Truth told, I had spotted the two of them earlier when I was walking down Park. They were clearly interested in me, so I'd given them both a hard look as I passed by, and they had turned instantly away. That's about as telltale a sign as you're likely to get from static surveillance, and nothing they were doing now was making me change my mind. Every once in a while, the girl would glance over the guy's shoulder, in the direction of the Deutsche Bank, and then say something to him before turning back. The guy never stopped talking into his cell phone. My bet? A walkie-talkie. Without a scanner, though, I couldn't be sure.

"Gotta hop," I told Chris, picking up my jacket. "I need a favor, though."

"What about our lunch? I pushed people all over the place to make room. You're like some goddamn senile cat, scampering off for no reason at all."

It was an old bitch. Bolting for no apparent reason is one of the things I do best—that and manipulation, betrayal, and lying. Only the highest professional standards. The irony is that Chris knew the truest thing about me I'd ever told anyone. We were drunk junior year, burning hemp, sitting on a bluff staring at the Golden Gate Bridge, when he finally got around to asking me how my parents had died.

"I don't know," I told him.

"How can you not know?"

"I don't know if they're dead."

"Give me a break."

And so I told him everything: Mother's two husbands, neither my father; the grandfather who insisted I call him "Sir"; the bonds, the coupons, the trust fund; all the houses we lived in as if Mother were determined to book a season in every climate zone America had to offer. How when I was thirteen, she had signed us up for an archaeological expedition in Baluchistan, straddling the Pak-Iranian border. How I'd woken up one morning two years later to find a note tacked to the center tent pole: "Max—I've left with Ravi [another archaeologist—a real one—fifteen years her junior] to look at a great dig. I shall be back in two weeks. Mother." Not "Love, Mother." Not "Dear Max." Not anything like it. That was the last time I saw her. Those two weeks had stretched to eighteen months before my aunt learned from dear Mother that she'd left me at the end of the world and booked a small tribe to come get me out.

"What the fuck did you do while you waited?" Chris wanted to know. "Live in a cave and eat bat shit?"

"Actually it wasn't too bad. A family took me in. They had a son my age. We rode horses, played soccer. I learned Baluch."

"That's fucking bullshit."

And there's the double irony: Of all the cock-and-bull tales I had told Chris in the twenty-odd years since—the weird excuses for not showing, the weirder ones for leaving early, the improbable investment consulting firm that provided my Washington letterhead, and on and on—I was sure the Baluchistan story was the one he least believed.

"C'mon, Chris," I said. He was back to swapping Nigerian crude. "This'll take ten minutes."

"What in God's name are you talking about now?"

"The favor. All you have to do is stand by the window and watch those two."

"Why would I want to do that? You really are nuts."

"Maybe. But my hunch is that they're tailing someone in this building—maybe one of your colleagues; hell, maybe even your boss."

Chris looked at me as if he was deciding whether to call security.

"It happens, sweetheart. Honest. The husband's sitting on his ass at home, laid off and stewed on midday martinis. Suddenly it dawns on him that the mother of his children has hooked up with the mailroom boy, so he calls in a private eye, and bingo! Fireworks hit the fan."

"Yeah, sure."

"It's a fabulous business these days," I pushed it. "Everyone's screwing everyone." Rule Seven: Create the context before you risk a truth. Rule Eight: Don't let the context twist in the wind. "Or maybe they're watching me."

"Right, Max. And I'm Princess Di and you're Dodi whatever the hell his name was. Drop the paranoid act. No one's following you."

Chances are he was right. (The why, for one thing, left a hole big enough to drive the Pyramids through.) But high-octane paranoia is as addictive as morphine and far more useful. There is no such thing as an accident, no coincidence, no luck—they taught us that on day one at the Farm.

I'll never forget Joe Lynch, the course director, walking up behind the podium that first morning and, without so much as a nod, asking, "Who ran a countersurveillance route coming here just now?" All of us wide-eyed career trainees looked around the auditorium, trying to decide if Lynch was joking. The Farm is a maximum-security facility with more deer than people. Only one road of any consequence runs through it. You'd have to be Vin Diesel with brains to even get inside the place. Still, Lynch had made his point: Always assume you're being tailed even when you are sure you're not. It's the only way to keep your edge, not get sloppy, not get caught.

I couldn't tell Chris any of that, of course. Like a lot of friendships, ours depended on a certain degree of ambiguity, augmented in my case—and maybe in his, too—with a healthy dose of harmless virtual reality. A moral no-man's-land.

"Listen," I said, "I was seeing this girl, and . . ."

Chris bit, back on familiar ground once more.

"Bound to happen," he said with a shrug.


"Hundreds of women. One Max. One of 'em was bound to get pissed off enough to come after you."

"Chris, listen—"

"I mean it, Max. You really are like a goddamn alley cat. You slink in and out of people's lives. Me, I don't mind that much. I'm not looking to bed you down, but—"

"The point is . . ."

"Remember that chewing-gum heiress who was stuck on you way back when? Get it? Stuck on you. What did that last? Seven months? A fucking world record. After Marissa."

In fact, I'd already asked Chris to be my best man when it dawned on me that I liked having sex with the heiress more than I liked her, just about the same time she realized that she preferred the idea of me to me in person.

"Youthful indiscretions," I said. I needed to get Chris back on track. "Lookit, this little piece of work is different. Very vindictive. Worse, she's got the money to indulge her anger."

"What's her name?"

Name? Volunteer nothing, and never give up a detail you absolutely don't have to.

"I cut her off cold," I said. "No five stages of grief with this one. Just checked out. Left her steaming. I wouldn't put it past her to put a tail on me, or worse. Chris, I could use a little help here."

Chris turned serious again. "Come on, Max, we're too old for this. I've got work to do. You can watch the watchers yourself."

"That's precisely what I can't do. If I do something stupid like walk out of here and look over my shoulder, bend over to tie my shoe, or stare into a display window to see what's going on behind me, they'll know I spotted them."

"So? Isn't that the point?"

"Yeah, you do that and whoever is running this little show will bring in a new team I won't spot. It's the way these things work."

Chris wasn't buying into it, but he hadn't said no. It was up to me to close the deal.

"Trust me," I told him, "this chick is totally unzipped, a psycho. She'll do me harm given the chance. I gotta know sooner rather than later whether she's got a tail on me."

I picked Chris's cell phone up off the desk, poked my cell number into it, and put it back down in front of him. "See this little button with the green telephone on it? Push that in ten and tell me what happens. That's all you have to do."

Chris tapped his fingers on the desk, adjusted his neck in his starched white collar, shot his wrist out from an equally starched and beautiful tailored French cuff, and gave his watch a good looking-over.

"Okay, okay. But you know, Max, it's not easy having you as a friend."

He rolled his wrist a few more times just to make sure I didn't miss what was wrapped around it. The watch looked as if it had cost enough to feed an entire Afghan village for years.

"A new toy, eh?"

"A Breitling." He was beaming. "It's got a micro-transmitter in it that works anywhere in the world."

"In case you get kidnapped?"

"No, asshole, I bought it for sailing."

I laughed. "Yeah, just the ticket next time you're blown out of Long Island Sound and end up lost in the Azores."

"One thing, Max. How do you know that that's the way these things work?"

"What things?"

"Not tipping off a tail."

There was something new in Chris's voice—a genuine curiosity. Maybe he was seeing me for the first time as I was, not as he wanted me to be. Maybe he was thinking about dumping his own little side plate. At this point, I didn't care.

"Some guy I met in a bar," I said. "He told me all about it."


A Conversation Between Award-Winning
Journalist Seymour M. Hersh and Robert Baer
Regarding Blow the House Down

Seymour M. Hersh: On one level this novel is just a fun read. It's fast, it's quick, it has a lot of detail we don't know. But on another level it raises fascinating questions.
One question, of course, relates to the use of real names. Why the decision to use Buckley's name? Are you worried some people might be offended? Buckley's family? You're obviously using some real people and that's interesting. Why did you decide to do that?

Robert Baer: Well, it's like Primary Colors. There's a lot more truth in this book than is apparent. One truth is that the guy involved in kidnapping Buckley may be the president of Iran. He was a member of IRGC-the same people who harbored bin Ladin's people, the suicide bombers who, according to the 9/11 Commission, crossed Iran to Afghanistan with the assistance of the Iranian government.

S.M.H.: But above and beyond that, you used those names because you're trying to create verisimilitude, is that it?

R.B.: I'm trying to provide an alternative scenario, which may be true and which the 9/11 Commission could never go into that deep.

S.M.H.: Well, we don't want to give away the end of the book, so we can't talk about what the story leads up to, but the bottom line is, when you're using the name of real-life FBI agent John O'Neill and others, do you worry about some people thinking, you know, that you've crossed a line? E. L. Doctorow used real names for historical purposes in a book set a long time ago, but this is current and today.

R.B.: Well, most of the real-life people I used come out heroic. I mean, John Millis, John O'Neill-I'm not libeling them. But it could be that some people are going to find it offensive that I have drawn some material from 9/11 and the real people who died tragically.

S.M.H.: Let me say again, on one level the book is a good read . . . gripping. On another level, for somebody like me, I go wham bam. When you don't use real names, you're mentioning a lot of incidents inside the CIA-very much inside baseball. There are some people you describe whom people you served with in the intelligence community, and perhaps even in Congress, will recognize-and these are not flattering stories. In other words, you're also telling some of the internal truth and you will piss off a lot of people. I assume you're a big enough boy to know that.

R.B.: Yeah, I'm getting at a fictional truth. You already know who some of these people are by the description.

S.M.H.: One of the most interesting things to me is that at one level you're writing for a mass audience, and at another you're writing for a very small group of people. Sort of dropping a marker to say, "Look, some of us have memories and some of us know what could have been done that wasn't done." Is that the intent?

R.B.: I did it intentionally. I wrote it close to the bone. Even these people in the middle of the book, the Arabs and the Iranians, are real people. They had something to say, and that truth is out there if you're willing to go out and listen to them or look at the intelligence objectively. If you don't, you're never going to know what happened on 9/11.

S.M.H.: And yet some of the things that happened are really fictional, obviously.

R.B.: It's fiction at the end of the day. But one thing I come back to is the Iranian connection. How did the 9/11 suicide bombers get across Iran? And no one's ever answered the question why the two San Diego suicide bombers were never followed up on. Why no one was fired. Why the interrogation of one of the suicide bombers transiting Dubai was never passed on to the FBI. We have not answered those questions because they're inconvenient or make us uncomfortable.

S.M.H.: The title of your novel, Blow the House Down, suggests one of things you're also trying to do is unravel the mystery. Are you seriously hoping to get enough people talking so that perhaps something more concrete can be done about what went wrong before 9/11?

R.B.: What I really want to do is bring out emotionally that we haven't answered these questions, and until we start telling the truth to each other and to ourselves we're not going to figure out what happened on 9/11 or prevent the next tragedy.

S.M.H.: What about some of the marginal players you describe-for example your Russian buddy who can get a passport from anywhere-are they real?

R.B.: Real people.

S.M.H.: You also describe an agent, an operative for whom the normal, the commonplace, legal rights and wrongs are mere annoyances. You know, if you have to get into someplace you buy the drill and you get in.

R.B.: That's the way you get what you're looking for.

S.M.H.: This is also based on reality.

R.B.: Breaking and entering-we used to do it every day in Europe, Asia, everywhere. They don't do it anymore. And you got to to get to the paper. You gotta get to the codes, however you get them. That's at another level-this is how espionage used to be done and it's not anymore.

S.M.H.: You know, it's interesting because you remind me of my learning curve as I was dealing with somebody in the military intelligence service-a guy who had a lot of serious foreign responsibilities. The marriage of one of his buddies broke up, and this guy wired and photographed the buddy's house. I mean he had pictures and phone intercepts of a house in America. I was stunned. I had no idea that guys like this would so casually cross the line.

R.B.: Yeah, or create a false paper trail to get somebody indicted. Get the IRS or even the FBI after them.

S.M.H.: Without getting too much into the plot stuff, that's one of the major elements of your novel. You're describing how you can get into a banking system, have it do things, and then rat out the person to the IRS. I assume when you were in the clandestine service these were things that were not unknown.

R.B.: It's all doable. You can get into Swiss transfers. The Israelis do it all the time and create false transfers.

S.M.H.: So what you've really written is a novel which, I'll say it again, discloses a reality that most Americans don't know much about. You think if you had told some of these stories as nonfiction-well, you wouldn't have because it's not your intention to harm potential future activities-but you simply wouldn't have gotten it cleared anyway. Am I right?

R.B.: Well, I had to show this book to the Agency, and they cleared it because it's fictional. But if I had come out with specific cases they would have never cleared it. It would have been in Publications Review Board forever.

S.M.H.: Are you worried about retribution from some of the real-life individuals who are not named but who are described? There are going to be some very unhappy people inside the Agency. The public won't know who you're talking about, but a very small group will know you're telling some stories about individuals who've committed heinous acts and lied about it. You're outing them in a way.

R.B.: Absolutely. You know, you do have to tell the truth in fiction even if it is fiction. The only way I can write something like this is to model it on real people.

S.M.H.: I've got to tell you Your protagonist is really strong. He can carry a lot of the book. I think it's good to put the reviewers and the audience on notice, though, as we are now, that this book is a huge double entendre in effect. This is a lot more than it seems to be. There are some books that are less than they seem to be. This one's a lot more. This is not only a mystery story, but it's one that has an overlay of an untouchable reality. And that's why it's really fascinating.

R.B.: You could never write it as nonfiction and not get sued. I don't know, it works. Plus, I had great editors.

S.M.H.: Or prosecutors.

R.B.: Or prosecutors. You know, I had editors who cut out the clichés and other problems-that was indispensable.

S.M.H.: When I first began to write for The New Yorker, William Shawn was the editor-the late William Shawn, the famous editor. I remember whenever he found a cliché in one of my pieces, he'd just write in the margin, "Please use words, Mr. Hersh."

R.B.: [Laughs] That was nicer than my wife, who would just yell, "This is crap," and out it would come.

S.M.H.: Anyway…one last question for me concerns your main villain. The very wealthy villain who runs behind the scenes with his money-is he based on somebody who's real?

R.B.: That's fictionalized. He's a composite.

S.M.H.: I'm so glad to hear that there isn't somebody quite that evil in the world.

R.B.: You need him for fiction. You need to put flesh on evil.

S.M.H.: It occurs to me to ask one final thing. Can I assume there were periods when you were bouncing around just like your character, only you were inside-you were bouncing around the Middle East, right?

R.B.: Yes.

S.M.H.: And often without any direct approval from higher authorities who never knew what the hell you were doing.

R.B.: That's the only way you could do it. You just had to follow the leads wherever they went. You didn't have time to go back to headquarters and ask for permission. You just had to go do it.

S.M.H.: One of your bosses, one of the chiefs you worked for, told me, "We never knew what the hell he was doing."

R.B.: [Laughs]

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Blow the House Down 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Lives up to the back cover hype. Moves fast, hard to put down, and leaves one wondering how much is true.
GailCooke More than 1 year ago
With his third novel (See No Evil and Sleeping With The Devil) bestselling author Robert Baer creates an intriguing and chilling alternate scenario of what took place prior to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Once a CIA operative Baer knows that there's often barely breathing room between fact and fiction, and due to his experience with operations in the East he's well familiar with the territory he stakes out in Blow The House Down, which merely serves to make his tale all the more compellingly real as we are introduced to veteran CIA operative Max Waller who won't rest easy until he finds the real truth concerning the kidnaping and murder of Bill Buckley, the CIA's Beirut chief of station in the 1980s. However, as Waller begins to dig into the facts surrounding Buckley's death he finds himself brought to an abrupt halt by an investigation that is obviously a ploy to keep him from learning more. Waller has already discovered a telling photo showing a Western man standing with Osama bin Laden and an Iranian terrorist. The bottleneck he encountered and the mysterious photograph only serve to whet Waller's determination to discover the truth. But, as he searches in the darkest corners of the world and even in Washington he has cause to wonder whether there is any truth at all. More than a suspenseful, fast-paced read, Blow The House Down raises many questions, disturbing ones, as Baer posits in a Q & A: 'How did the 9/11 suicide bombers get across Iran? And no one's ever answered the question why the two San Diego suicide bombers were never followed up on. Why no one was fired. Why Jarrah's questioning in Dubai was never passed on to the FBI. We have not answered those questions because they're inconvenient or make us uncomfortable.' An unsettling scenario? Yes. Politically relevant? You bet. Read and decide for yourself. Whatever your conclusions, Baer has crafted another blockbuster of a book.
Sandsitive on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very good read. The past and current events blended into the story kept me feeling as if I was there when it happened. The names and places struck familiar chords and compelled you to turn the page.
mikedraper on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Former CIA operative Richard Bayer's first novel is the story of what could have happened behind the scenes of 9/11 and what might have happened if officials listened to Max Waller.Max is a long time CIA operative who is given an easy job in Langley at the end of his career. He's bothered by a photo he sees with Osama bin Laden and a person in Western clothing with their head carefully cut out of the photo.He shows the phot to a friend to see what he might know. Max's friend takes the photo with him and soon after is dead. Then, people begin following Max.When Max evades his followers, he's brought in for questioning. Officials want to know why his prints are on the photo. WIth that and other trumped up charges, he's placed on administrative leave.He continues to investigate, calling on old associates but officials look at him as a man who's time has past.There are puzzles and complications as Max goes on. However, Max never seems likable and seemed too self centered. The action comes in waves and then slows down as facts and documents are presented. This lessened the suspense of the novel.With the level of espionage, I think that fans of John le Carre would enjoy this book and I look forward to another book by the author who has demonstrated that he has the knowledge that could make a good story.
jenspeaks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Thought provoking "fictionalized truth" in light of what we know about Islamic extremists in our post-9/11 world, especially Iran.
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