When I first met ex-CIA officer Bob Baer in Washington DC, I thought, The guy looks nothing like George Clooney. But Clooney, who won an Academy Award playing Baer in the film Syriana, had in fact captured something about the posture, the pathos, the weariness of a CIA man who spends too many years getting filthy in the field – in the peculiar mire of the Middle East, no less – risking his life and being ignored for it. Clooney in the film cycles among the suits at Langley, the cubicled bureaucracy, looking somewhat like the only sane man in a mental ward.
So it was with Bob Baer in DC – unfamiliar ground, “a city of crazies,” he said. He was heading back home, out west, to the little mountain village of Silverton, and when I met him there a few months later, he took me on the big tour. Silverton is a mining outpost turned tourist stop, but it still resonates with the dissident manners of men who dig silver out of the ground looking for paydirt and don’t like the authorities interfering. The town is accessed by high passes where tractor trailers regularly fall off the cliffs in winter, and it has only one paved road, Main Street, and it has a church with upside-down crosses. Several residents – so Baer assured me – are licensed to own fully-automatic machineguns. “It’s to shoot at the black helicopters,” he laughed but didn’t seem to be joking. The locals tell me the place has a tendency to welcome “people who messed up in some other life and come here to be nobody.” I think Bob Baer came here partly because the CIA claimed he messed up. Maybe he did. Depends on who you talk to in this business, which is as it should be among professional liars.
Because maybe it was the Agency that messed up – this seems to be a CIA habit, the kind of habit that fails to see Al Qaeda on the horizon, that gets the country mired in Iraq, that makes you wonder, as a tax-paying citizen, whether the agency in its current incarnation has a reason for being other than to squander your money. It’s something the citizens in Silverton might grouse about.
Robert Baer dedicated 21 years to the storied Central Intelligence Agency, beginning in 1976, at age 22. He was a believer. He trained to blow things up – the tradition of covert action from which the CIA was born – and, more important, to make sure Americans didn’t get blown up. He trained to listen, watch, take notes. He dove into the cities of the Middle East, learning the spy game, learning to deceive and trick and be someone else, perfecting his Arabic, growing out his black beard, tanning his skin. The Middle East was his crucible and eventually his obsession. He became so good he passed as native, wandering Beirut in the 1980s during the civil war that ravaged Lebanon, wearing a headband that announced, in the calligraphy of the Qu’ran, We Crave Martyrdom. “These fucking Americans are everywhere,” he’d tell his cabbies, looking to flush out martyrs. “We should blow up their embassy!” As early as 1983, he was chronicling the threat of Islamist terrorist networks in memos that he says few of the people who mattered in Langley or the Oval Office bothered to read. His work would win him the CIA’s Career Intelligence Medal; Seymour Hersh, the dean of intelligence reporters in Washington DC and a personal friend, once called him the “best field operative the CIA had in the Middle East.” The accolade from his higher-ups felt like cruel irony when years later the Islamists he warned about smashed into American shores.
When he left the Agency in 1998, he hunkered down and wrote about his time as a spy. His first two books – a memoir, See No Evil, and an expose, Sleeping with the Devil, about the demented US relationship with the Saudis – netted him a deal with Hollywood. But what Syriana as film could not capture – because, after all, it’s a Hollywood operation and dedicated, like the CIA, to a good cover story, one that sells, keeps us watching without really understanding – is that the CIA isn’t very good at doing what it’s supposed to do, which is not to assassinate or to blow things up or to mount ill-conceived coups, but to know. The agency Baer labored for and loved has been credited in its lowest hours with so much foolery, atrocity, waste and deception, so much that is subterranean and unaccountable, and meanwhile it’s supposed to know what the rest of us can’t know, to get a grip on the secrets of the world, to be accountable in the final sense of providing what’s called “intelligence” – not stupidity.
So Baer had come to Silverton to get away from stupidity. He suggested we go hiking into the mountains. The day was warm and the sun high and the creeks full of melt. When I walked to meet him at his old refurbished miner’s shack off Main Street, across from the church with the upside-down crosses, his wife Dayna, an ex-CIA counterterrorism officer, was on the carpet with their newly adopted 13-month-old Pakistani orphan girl, Khyber, who smiled and smiled. “The Taliban judge in the adoption court didn’t trust two Americans wandering around the country looking for an orphan,” said Baer. “But the US embassy was worse.” He held Khyber’s little hand and kissed her foot and gave his impish smile. “I’m not sure whether she’s the daughter of a suicide bomber or a Taliban warrior we killed,” he said. Turned out neither was true. Then we went hiking.
The Central Intelligence Agency, established in 1947 under the National Security Act, was conceived by men who had learned the art of secret warfare in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. The OSS was a commando outfit, designed for covert action – assassination of Nazis, bombing of bridges – but the CIA was supposed to be something better, more subtle, more complex. It would engage in covert action when the need arose, but preferably it would hang like fog over the countries it targeted, quiet and amorphous, floating in and out. In the wake of WWII, intelligence gathering was the stated goal, not brute intervention, certainly not murder. This was emphasized in the charter and the legislation that established the CIA, but the language of the law didn’t matter much.
The agency was, and remains, divided into two main branches. Foremost is the Directorate of Operations, the DO, which fields officers on the ground, trained in disappearing under cover, gathering information, and, in the extreme case, willing and able to engage in covert action, to fix elections, topple governments, arrange unfortunate deaths. The DO is better known as the clandestine services – it is the CIA imagined in movies, alternately garlanded and smoke-screened but always romanticized. By contrast, the Directorate of Intelligence, the DI, is staffed with intellectuals – the PhDs, the scientists, the psychiatrists, sociologists, the geeks – who analyze the information the DO officers are supposed bring in. From the start there was conflict between the two directorates: one the home of mavericks, operators, the men who got dirty, the other the ivory tower of the thinkers who filtered the raw data to make it palatable for consumption by politicians. In many ways, it’s a false dichotomy: the two directorates have worked hand in hand making bad decisions, but each habitually blames the other.
Bob Baer, from his own account, was an operations guy by nature. He grew up in the Colorado high country dreaming of a life as a competitive downhill skier. He liked to run sheer slopes where a bad decision meant you died wrapped in pines or tossed off cliffs or lost in a crevasse. The ambition stalled with his rotten performance at school – “Straight Fs, with a few worse grades,” as he recalls it, because he spent too much time on the slopes. His mother, heiress to a sizable fortune from Bob’s grandfather, had a reasonable answer. She took him to Europe for a kind of quack Henry James education at age 15, the schooling of a nascent CIA field man. Bob and his mom traversed Europe for several years – his father, who “wasn’t good for anything,” had abandoned the family – and by 1968, they were in Paris when the city was burning and students were rioting. He soon learned French, then German when his mother bought a Land Rover and headed east, aimed improbably for Moscow. The Rover was an old piece of junk, “like riding a John Deere tractor.” When they limped out of Prague, Soviet tanks passed them on the road, dispatched to crush the Prague Spring. They made it Moscow, then Helsinki, then home to the states, where Baer was sent by his mother to a military school. The discipline somehow took, and he was accepted into Georgetown University, graduating with a degree in international relations and, on a lark, he passed the Foreign Service exam. A year later, crashed out on a friend’s couch in Berkeley, with no job prospects and not much ambition for anything but the life of a ski bum, he applied, again on a lark, to the CIA. He imagined a sinecure in the Alps, where he might spy on European governments between runs in the powder.
Instead, Baer was dumped into the bowels of New Delhi to scope out Soviet influence in India. He was now a Cold Warrior. When he arrived to the house provided as cover, he was greeted by seven servants lined up under “a huge banyan tree and a pergola of jasmine that arched over the entire length of the driveway.” No snow, but this wasn’t so bad for a 25-year-old starting his first real job.
In 1976, the same year that Baer, bright-eyed and enamored, joined the Agency, a clandestine services veteran named John Stockwell, chief in the CIA’s disastrous Angola venture in the 1970s, prepared a series of investigative memoirs very much along the lines of the books Baer would write a quarter-century later. What Stockwell had seen as an operative in Africa and across the Third World was a CIA that was purely interventionist – not gathering intelligence, but brutally machinating, vicious, a secret weapon of US presidents and White House policymakers to battle the Soviets for world control. CIA paramilitary operations through proxy forces – the funding of mercenaries, terrorists, saboteurs – were, reported Stockwell, “all illegal,” their goal to “disrupt the normal functioning, often the democratic functioning, of other societies” (a blinding flash of the obvious for readers today). For Stockwell, who would quit the CIA in 1976 to whistleblow before Congress, this “rais[ed] serious questions about the moral responsibility of the United States in the international society of nations.” Secrecy in pursuit of the mercurial thing called “national security,” he wrote, had given license to amorality that issued from the highest rungs of government: “The major function of secrecy in Washington is to keep the U.S. people and U.S. Congress from knowing what the nation’s leaders are doing,” he wrote. “Secrecy is power. Secrecy covers up mistakes. Secrecy covers up corruption.” And in the CIA, he concluded, “a profound, arrogant, moral corruption set in.” Ex-CIA analyst Chalmers Johnson came to a similar conclusion: “Every president since Truman, once he discovered that he had a totally secret, financially unaccountable private army at his personal disposal found its deployment irresistible.”
By the mid-1970s, however, the veil was torn wide. Congress under the direction of Sen. Frank Church in 1975-76 issued a devastating series of reports on the criminality of the agency. The CIA had sponsored coups and fixed elections in Greece, Italy, Burma, Indonesia and dozens of other nations. It had smuggled Nazi war criminals out of Germany to fight communism in Eastern Europe; it worked arm in arm with narcotics traffickers in Asia, Europe, the Middle East (and always seemed to leave behind a thriving drug nexus wherever it intervened); it supplied security forces worldwide with torture equipment, torture manuals, torture training. In Vietnam, its massive Saigon Station oversaw the kidnapping and killing of tens of thousands of suspected Vietcong, many of them innocents, doing a good job of turning the peasant population against the US. The rot came out almost daily as the Church Committee dug it up. By the late 1970s, the CIA had planned or carried out the assassination of leaders in more than a dozen countries; CIA jokers called this “suicide involuntarily administered,” courtesy of the Agency’s “Health Alteration Committee.” The agency’s work disrupting governments was often in service of corporations with close ties to Congress and the White House and whose business interests were threatened by anything that smelled of socialism. The agency had been busy too on the homefront, in violation of domestic law, overseeing mind control programs in which unwitting Americans were poisoned with drugs, experimented upon, effectively tortured; opening the mail of US citizens; surveilling the political activity of Americans; infiltrating the media with disinformation; lying habitually to elected officials. The CIA appeared in this light as a threat to the republic itself.
Not much of this perturbed young Bob Baer, who was finishing his senior year at Georgetown as the Church revelations splashed across the front pages of the Washington Post and New York Times. “I was left with the impression,” he wrote in his memoir, “that behind the dirt there must be some deep, dark, impenetrable mystery – a forbidden knowledge.” Sojourning with his mother across Europe had given him a “romantic view of the world,” and the CIA, he said, “seemed for a moment like romance itself.”
Historians will argue the point, but in the wake of the Church hearings a kind of reform fell over the agency, certainly a scaling back of covert action that heralded the end of what nostalgics might call the heroic age of free-wheeling interventionism – though the reform didn’t last. Baer matured as a field officer under the new dispensation, tasked to do what the CIA claimed it now wanted from the clandestine services: Not to disrupt or destabilize or assassinate – presidential directive 12333, issued in 1981, explicitly prohibited CIA assassinations – but to listen, speak the language, gather sources, stay quiet with an ear to the ground, know your host country, the critical issues, the people and players, learn the streets of the city where you’re posted, disappear into the fabric of the society. Learn to move like fog. Any case officer will tell you this is a lot harder than it sounds. CIA officers who worked with Baer tell me he excelled at it wherever he went, in Beirut in the 1980s, in the disaster of Iraq post-Gulf War I, in Khartoum tracking terrorists, in Tajikistan as station chief, in Sarajevo during the Yugoslav wars, in Paris working cocktail parties.
Tradecraft was the key. You learned to dodge surveillance and to run surveillance. You learned how to tap phones and to make sure you weren’t tapped. You learned about the enemy’s weapons, battle plans, the latest technologies. You devoured books, a CIA man devoting himself as a regional scholar. You learned to use the toys of the trade, weird poisons like “Who, Me?”, which makes the victim smell literally like shit for days, the stench seeping from his pores. You used standard-issue James Bond items like microdots, photographic negatives reduced to the size of a period on a page, and you learned stegonography, the art of caching data inside photographs. You learned disguises. Baer thought highly of the Diamond-Tooth Disguise – a false diamond incisor in your smile-line and “the only thing people remember about you is that diamond.” You learned covers for action and covers for status, the latter being the big picture explanation for why you’re in-country. Most often your cover for status is that you work in some capacity for the US embassy, a day job shuffling paper (Baer, like all CIA case officers, is constrained by lifetime contract with the CIA from revealing his status covers over the years).
The real work is after dark, when the embassy shuts down. Then you hit the streets, the bars, the alleys, the dingy hotel rooms where you debrief your “agents,” the locals you’ve turncoated to work betraying their own government, stealing secrets. Covers for action were the life or death of a mission, the determinant whether you’d head home for the night or get caught on a capital crime for spying. The Laundry Cover came in handy. If you’re running around a city late at night, make sure you know where the nearest 24 hour laundromat is, make sure you have the dirty laundry with you – it has to be really dirty – and “make sure you’re dirty too.” Babies in a stroller are good cover. Dogs late at night are good cover for dead-drops, because you can look to the dog as an excuse for your wandering. “You can also hide messages,” says Baer, “in the dog poop.”
The Mom Cover was one of Baer’s inventions. “I’ve taken my mom as cover to the diciest places,” he tells me. “I took her to the Garm Valley in 1992, in Tajikistan, which had just been overrun by Bin Laden extremists.” Baer’s purpose as chief of station in Tajikistan was to find out how and where the factions were operating. “We had an old Niva sedan with stolen Afghan diplomat plates and got stopped by twelve gunmen, fighting the civil war, who were filthy and cut up and hadn’t washed in weeks. My mother said, ‘Oh hello, how are you? I’m his mother. And where are you from?’ Some of the gunmen spoke English. They finally gave us tea.”
So here was Baer among Jordanian princes, rogue oil traders in Iraq. Here he was in 1993 stealing a kilo of cocaine from the airplane of Morocco’s King Hasan, simply to prove that one of our allies in the Middle East was a drug runner (“I wanted to rub Washington’s nose in it.”). In Sarajevo he posed as an arms dealer, in Iraq he was an assassin, in Paris a pimp. Once he was stalked by wolves on the Silk Road. In Tajikistan, he spent his off-time cultivating his counterparts in the KGB, parachuting with them drunk on vodka or racing around in their tanks for a goof (headquarters reprimanded him for his initiative). In the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, he found himself in the middle of an Islamic uprising, holed up in a hotel room with a cache of Stinger missiles, while people were shot in the town square and a man with a bull-horn screamed, “THERE ARE SPIES AMONG US.”
Then there was Beirut in the 1980s, where Baer would fully understand the stakes intelligence work presented, the answers it could unfold. Beirut was a tragic experience for the United States in the Middle East, eclipsed only by the disaster of the Iraq occupation 20 years later. It began with the car bombing of the American embassy in April 1983, which killed 63 Americans, including six CIA officers. Six months later, 241 US soldiers died in a car-bombing of the Marine barracks. Then, in the spring of 1984, the beloved head of the CIA station in Beirut, William Francis Buckley, was kidnapped by elements of Hezbollah, and by 1985, Buckley in captivity was dead from pneumonia. Never before had the CIA suffered so many losses in such short order.
No one knew who was behind the car bombings, least of all the CIA. Solving the mystery became an obsession for Baer, and he set out on a four-year odyssey in the Beirut Station to get the answer. Working Beirut was dangerous. The place was shelled and rocketed daily, infested with snipers, divided into fiefdoms controlled by Druz militiamen, Hezbollah, Fatah terrorists. Baer operated among them all. “Bob knew Beirut better than anyone I met there,” said former CIA officer John Maguire, now retired, who spied with him at the Beirut station for several years in the 1980s. “He worked both sides of the Green Line, east Beirut, and west Beirut, the southern suburbs, and the Biqa valley. He was a recruiter, and he worked alone, did it 24-7, with no fanfare, no back up.” Baer finally concluded, in 1987, that the Islamist regime of Iran, employing local Fatah proxies, was the key player behind the embassy bombing and the Buckley kidnapping. The revelations, said Baer, didn’t register at headquarters. “It was old history by then. They just didn’t care. It was my first realization of the historical amnesia at the agency,” he says now.
Baer claims he would go on to produce no small supply of intelligence in the Middle East and Central Asia. He recruited an asset inside Hezbollah, which had never before been done. He says he prevented a terrorist attack on the USS New Jersey, which was to be rocketed off the coast of Lebanon. In the 1980s, he began plumbing the network of Islamists known as the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members would later link into Al Qaeda. “I told headquarters, ‘Hey guys we gotta do something about the Brotherhood, they’re up to no good,’” Baer told me. “I went to Germany, found a Brotherhood source, but no one in DC was interested and they let the guy disappear.” The source, Baer claims, was a member of the same cell that Mohammed Atta would join in Hamburg years later in preparation for the attacks of 9/11.
The point, he told me again and again, is that the higher-ups at the CIA who reported to the White House did not seem to value real intelligence, the slow organic process of gathering information in bits and understanding it. Presidents serve for four years; they want results today, they want intelligence that serves the political agenda that ensures re-election. CIA director George Tenet in the run-up to the Iraq war provided just this kind of intelligence. The Iraqi WMDs were a “slam-dunk,” said Tenet, and his pronouncement fit with the chief justification for a war the Bush Administration had predetermined. But the WMDs were an illusion, and meanwhile there were dissenters on the ground in the CIA who said as much and were ignored.
One day when I asked Baer to list his achievements as a spy, he offered up a litany of serious work. “I also fixed the coffee machine on the 6th floor and fucked George Tenet’s wife,” he joked.
Historical amnesia might seem a habit of every American administration since the founding of the national security state in 1947, but it stands out as a world-historic problem in the post-9/11 environment. The attacks from Iran’s proxies in Beirut – the bombings of American military and intelligence sites, the kidnapping of Buckley – arguably presented a classic case of history coming back to haunt the CIA in the form of “blowback.” Ex-CIA analyst Chalmers Johnson has made a career writing about blowback, the CIA’s term of art for when interventionism results in long-term negative consequences for US national security. Johnson in his three books on the topic – his first was subtitled The Costs and Consequences of American Empire – makes a compelling universal argument for blowback as systemic in US foreign policy post-World War II.
In hindsight, Iranian blowback against the US should have been expected, as easy to understand as the law of gravity. In 1953, the CIA helped to topple the democratically-elected president of Iran, a socialist named Mohammed Mossadegh who threatened to nationalize British oil interests. The agency installed the tyrannical Shah, who was friendly to oil corporations while instituting a reign of terror that begat the Islamic Revolution of 1979 – the same Islamists who stormed the US embassy to take 53 American hostages and spark the hostage crisis that would unravel the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the same Islamists who now aggressed against the US in Beirut, where the US also happened to be intervening. During this period, the CIA was providing arms to another group of Islamist revolutionaries in Afghanistan, who were fighting off a Soviet invasion. The past in Afghanistan was prologue: Our Islamist allies there would coalesce into Al Qaeda to provide a particularly nasty example of blowback on September 11, 2001.
How Bob Baer came to his unhappy end at the CIA after 21 years of service, reduced overnight to the status of pariah and forced to quit, is a matter of dispute. By 1995 he was head of CIA operations in northern Iraq, based in Kurdish-held Salah-Al-Din, tasked with organizing opposition to the regime of Saddam Hussein. It was his first foray into covert action, and it would be his last. In early 1995, his sources inside the Iraqi army were talking about a coup attempt, the toppling of Saddam and the installing of a military junta friendly to the US. This seemed to accord with Baer’s mission. For months he had been directing Kurdish forces, with CIA support, to attack Saddam’s army outposts in the north. The attacks resulted in the deaths of thousands of Iraqi soldiers. (When I asked Baer if he had ever committed assassinations for the agency, he said, “Nope, sorry to disappoint, but I ordered the deaths of over 2,000 Iraqis in paramilitary operations. Does that make me an assassin or a mass murderer?”)
Washington said he had overstepped his authority in supporting the coup planners. Baer claimed that the Clinton Administration had in fact given the go-ahead, then balked at the last minute. Baer’s feeling was that the administration didn’t know what it wanted, was too “politically correct,” and that he was the scapegoat for its indecision. The coup, when it finally unfolded, was crushed unceremoniously, the rebel generals killed.
What then happened strained Baer’s imagination. He was recalled to headquarters, investigated by the FBI, his passports confiscated, and he was charged – absurdly, it seemed, given the CIA’s history of screw-ups that went unpunished – with attempted murder for conspiring to assassinate a foreign leader. Baer claimed he was only following orders. After a six month inquiry, he was exonerated of the charge. The ironies abound. Baer had excelled in intelligence, not intervention, and his only attempt at covert action would backfire to ruin his career. He was permanently desk-jobbed, hating the air-conditioned bureaucracy of Washington, knowing he’d never get posted again in the field where he thrived. At the very moment when his career in the agency should have taken a turn for the better, he quit.
Now he surveyed the landscape of his life, and it was not pretty. He was broke, priced out of the bubble-economy real estate in DC, and, accustomed to living in hellholes and on the edge, he felt like a stranger in his own country. His family was in shambles after years of neglect. His marriage, he said, was loveless, sexless – he had long been escaping it purposely in assignments overseas. He was a pariah to his three children, an absentee father. “There’s this whole bullshit that they’ll come back to you in the end,” he says today. “But that’s, well, bullshit. My kids basically lie to me about everything. Their grades. Their lives.” He soon got divorced, and re-married to a colleague, a CIA agent named Dayna Williamson, who he met while posted working the war in Sarajevo. Dayna was a social worker in Orange County before she joined the agency, became a “shooter” in the CIA’s Office of Security, trained to kill with a pistol, trained in “target acquisition” in crowds using a quick-draw purse with a false bottom where she kept a Glock. She once worked protecting the queen of Jordan during public appearances. Orphaned from the agency, Bob and Dayna tried freelance intelligence consulting in Beirut, old and familiar territory. One of the first offers Baer got was to commit an assassination. That wasn’t an option.
Instead, he would study Latin and Greek, would become a scholar. He read Aristotle, Herodotus, Polybius, Tacitus in the original tongue. He thought about writing books, something about his saga with the CIA. The idea made sense. It might even earn him money. Baer worked for two years to complete “See No Evil,” and, when the book hit stores in early 2002, pegged to the 9/11 attacks, it was a best-seller. Its argument was commonsensical and certainly held no news: The CIA had forgotten that intelligence depended on human beings in the field, what’s called in the parlance “humint.” Computers crunching data, the satellites snapping photos from miles in the sky – these wouldn’t save us. The failure to trust the perils of humint, argued Baer, helped allow 9/11 to happen. He dedicated the book to his kids: “I hope this goes a little way,” he wrote, “in explaining where I was for all those years.”
Baer liked the discipline of writing; it played to his strengths as a spy. He could accomplish it alone, with no oversight, cultivating sources, listening on his own terms, unconstrained by the bureaucracy. A number of ex-CIA case officers I spoke to said Baer’s memoir rang true: The CIA did not value its people in the dirt. Ex-CIA deep cover agent Ishmael Jones, who last year published a pseudonymous memoir, “The Human Factor,” about his disillusioning years at the CIA, told me: “Baer’s achievements in books show that he is very talented and intelligent. Imagine what he could have done for our national security in a functioning clandestine service.” This is perhaps the greatest irony: Baer needed to leave the agency to fully thrive. Working for the CIA was “a little boy’s adventure,” Baer told me. “But you don’t mature. You don’t grow up.”
When Hollywood came calling after the success of “See No Evil” and Syriana went into production in 2004, Baer snagged a cameo role, playing an FBI agent. He had one line, demanding George Clooney give up his “passports” – in the plural – and he kept flubbing it. There are a lot of ex-CIA officers who tell me they’ve laughed at the Syriana version of the CIA, among them Bob Baer.
What Syriana offers, beyond its obvious portrait of the symbiosis of big oil and aggressive foreign policy, is a clean conspiracist choreography of agency men. The CIA dances without fail to the tune of oil corporation executives and DC lobbyists and lawyers who, in undisclosed channels as ethereal as ESP, order the agency to assassinate a Middle Eastern emir the oil corporations don’t like. This preposterous clockwork CIA world is run, like most CIA conspiracies on film, with no snags, no accidents, no bureaucratic in-fighting, no paperwork, no stupidity or incompetence or laziness, and certainly nothing of the tiresome and tragically boring real world interregnums where officers like Baer sweat in those hotel rooms in Beirut debriefing sources, slowly making connections, piecing the puzzle or not piecing it at all. Real intelligence work doesn’t make for good movies.
In this regard, Syriana is a remarkably dated vision that aligns nicely with the agency of the 1950s and 1960s that swooped around the planet toppling governments during the golden age of covert action, back when the CIA was deadly effective and not the clipped-wing thing it is today. One could argue that Syriana is in fact a kind of backhanded propaganda, as deafeningly simplistic as a James Bond film. “The objection I have with Baer’s work is that the entertainment angle unintentionally shows the CIA as an efficient organization,” says Ishmael Jones, who spent 15 years in deep cover with the agency. “Syriana may seem a negative portrayal of the CIA – as an organization of assassins seeking to advance American oil company interests – but it also presents the CIA as all-knowing, determined, tough and hard-working. The CIA, as a living creature, would prefer this portrayal to that of being devoted only to its own feeding and growth, avoiding rigorous work and foreign duty.” When I asked Baer about his fellow officer’s assessment, he shot back in an e-mail: “He’s right.”
The real story that Syriana missed is that the CIA today has more employees, more hangers-on in the bureaucracy, more private contractors, a fatter budget than ever, and it still can’t seem to effectively deploy field agents for the fundamental purpose of human intelligence. In the long wake of 9/11, the agency, flush with money, engaged in vast new hiring, and the CIA now boasts over 20,000 employees, equal to the size of an army division. Most serve in the Directorate of Intelligence, the geek squad; less than 2,000 work in the clandestine services at the Directorate of Operations. But even the operations people are mostly staying home. According to Ishmael Jones, some 90 percent of CIA employees live and work in the comfort of the US, unaccustomed to drinking ditchwater and sleeping on cots; during the Cold War, perhaps 45 percent lived stateside. The physical evidence of the domesticity is all around Washington DC, in the form of huge new building construction for CIA offices.
“Before 9/11, the CIA was bureaucratic and sloppy, but after 9/11 it got viciously more so,” Jones wrote me recently in an e-mail describing how the bloat functions. “Instead of just calling someone and setting a meeting, as you do so often in your work as a journalist,” he told me, “the CIA will form committees to discuss how to contact someone and spend months on it. Then instead of calling the guy on the phone, they’ll do something wildly expensive – create a convention in Rome at a fancy hotel, prepare events and speakers, and then invite the guy to the convention. Or they buy the bank where he does business. Real estate is big, so maybe they’ll buy the house next door to the guy. These programs never seem to work because the conditions never seem to be just right for meeting the person. But meeting the man isn’t the goal,” Jones told me. “Making everyone look busy and making money disappear is.”
The agency is gripped in the privatization frenzy now commonplace in the US intelligence services, where officers are more interested in the revolving doors of the Beltway than, pace the Hollywood delusions of Syriana, whacking emirs halfway across the globe. The intelligence-industrial complex is worth as much as $50 billion a year, with private sector contracts outsourced to ex-CIA officers who offer their services to the agency at thrice what the average CIA staffer makes (and with far less effectiveness, according to sources like Jones, than even the wasteful staffers). This is a change unprecedented in the history of the agency. “You never saw a private contractor inside CIA in my time and no one talked about getting a contract when they left,” Baer tells me. “People retired and disappeared. It was like Cincinnatus. They went back to their farms. Look at George Tenet. He retires, makes millions of dollars on his book, and now he has multiple contracts consulting with the CIA. When he wrote his book, the CIA gave him researchers and an office – a classified office at Langley – so he could have the CIA do his fact-checking for him.” Ishmael Jones tells me that some $3 billion since 9/11 has been “wasted, lost or stolen” by ex-CIA officers working as contractors doing “support work,” running training programs, conducting “research,” writing “analysis.” Private companies fleecing the US government is an American tradition, more starkly in the last decade than ever before, but the difference, notes Jones, “is that CIA contractors have no oversight, no accountability.”
The new hiring, the bigger budgets, the growth in contracting is clearly predicated on the ostensible concerns of national security. All this effort is meant to defeat the noun called “terror” and find Bin Laden, who has taken up the useful spot on the horizon where Communism once loomed as the threat. Bob Baer profited from the Bin Laden threat industry with his first book. “There’s money, careers, whole reputations dependent on the Bin Laden threat. But the threat has come and gone,” says Baer. “We fucked that one up.”
Meanwhile, there is the Baghdad Station, where the investment is supposed to matter. John Maguire, who worked with Baer in Beirut, recently came back from Baghdad, now the largest CIA clandestine operation since Saigon during the Vietnam War. “Few if any case officers know their way around the city, rarely venture out, certainly not alone, and most can get lost. ‘Too dangerous,’ they say. When they do go out,” Maguire tells me, “it’s with personal body guards, drivers, armored cars, automatic weapons, and a profile from a Mad Max movie.” So much for moving like fog. Instead, there is the iron fist, the Abu Ghraibs and the CIA “black sites,” the super-secret gulags, where the agency has resurrected its criminal habit of torturing “sources.” Torture, as Bob Baer will tell you, has never produced a useful piece of intelligence and never will. Torture does, however, produce a lot of pissed-off people who end up hating the United States when they might have been allies. In other words, a good set-up for more blowback.
One day last autumn, when I went to visit Baer in Silverton before the big snows hit and the roads would be closed for days, we walked in the mountains and talked about what a really effective CIA might have achieved. It might have found Bin Laden (Baer thinks he’s dead, his videos that pop up the work of an Al Qaeda master in PhotoShop). Might have gotten inside the Muslim Brotherhood that helped produce Bin Laden’s troops. Might have been honest about the mirage of Saddam’s WMDs. “The CIA supplied weapons to the mujahideen in Afghanistan for ten years and beat the Soviet army,” he said. “Yet the agency hadn’t secured one single source inside Afghanistan who could tell us about Al Qaeda.”
We talked about his latest book, “The Devil We Know,” an intelligence analysis of Iran that suggests everything in the popular discourse in the US about Iran is wrong. It’s the sort of intelligence that likely would have been ignored if published inside the agency. The US, offers Baer, should engage with Iran, a great power in the Middle East, the heir of the Persia of antiquity that is invested in a historical memory the American spy apparatus can’t be bothered to understand. The US should come to a détente with Iran’s rulers, recognizing them not as madmen intent on destruction but as players in the world of realpolitik – not so very different in their intent than the United States. Iran, says Baer, has abandoned its penchant for funding terrorism against the US. Altogether this is a big-hearted argument, almost heroic, given the carnage visited on the CIA by the mullahs during Baer’s years in Beirut, the friends killed by Iran, the chaos spread by Iran. The book in that sense is a peace offering in spite of the awful past – a recognition of historical memory and an attempt at an answer to it.
Almost nothing in what he suggests in the Iran book accords with the conventional wisdom in DC. Iran must submit, goes the wisdom, or else suffer our bombs. Iran, after all, is supposed to be the next big threat. Baer’s dissenting voice is small in the scrum of interests in Washington. That’s why he’s in Silverton. He suggests the CIA transfer its headquarters to the mountains, to live in the hard cold winter and get a grip on reality, lose some fat. I get the impression he no longer believes in US power as currently configured. Perhaps he has come full circle from traveling the world with his mom. He tells me he might run for county sheriff and that his first official act is that he will “no longer enforce federal laws.” He tells me, “We’re a country of isolationists. We don’t do empires. So we come home. Build the perfect electric car, give away solar panels, retool the assholes on Wall Street to build public transportation.” He’s got his new daughter Khyber to take care of, and his wife Dayna. He has a new pair of skis. As we walked into the mountains, snow started falling. The peaks would soon be covered, and the valley. Baer could go skiing.
CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY, is writing a book about secessionist groups in the US. You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or see more of his work at christopherketcham.com.