Syriana” – the CIA Reality


Interview with Robert Baer


by Stash Luczkiw



Espionage, they say, is the world’s second oldest profession. Like the oldest profession, its practitioners come in countless shapes and sizes, colors and creeds. Also like the oldest profession, good spies have the protean ability to make you think they’re exactly who you want them to be – often by merely listening sympathetically to your secrets, or divulging some of theirs.


As I drive through one of the most sparsely populated areas of the Colorado Rockies, on my way to see ex-CIA officer Robert Baer, I have trouble picturing his face. True, I’ve seen him several times on CNN, since whenever an expert on Hezbollah or Middle Eastern terrorism was needed he would inevitably be invited to speak. At times the bearded face of a fattened-up George Clooney, who played the character based on Baer in Syriana, comes to mind, but it doesn’t stick.


So when the proprietor of the motel I’m staying in leads me through the small mining town more than 3,000 meters above sea level to Baer’s front porch, I try to lock on to his facial features. His blue eyes (or maybe they’re gray) glint in the morning light as he opens the door with his three Labrador retrievers and introduces me to his wife Dayna. He offers coffee with a relaxed rural American hospitality – come to the kitchen and help yourself to sugar and milk – that automatically cuts through any unnecessary formality.


His face looks nondescript, exactly how I’d expect a spy to be: the consummate “gray man” able to blend into any situation without drawing undue attention. There’s something innately congenial about him as his expression oscillates between that of a young boy eager to horse around with his three Labs and a distinguished gentlemen with plenty of rough edges. While his salt-and-pepper hair betrays an age on the wiser side of 50, his stocky athletic bearing projects a much younger persona.


After 25 years spent living in “some of the world’s worst hellholes,” he settled down in Colorado with his second wife, Dayna; she also worked for the CIA when they met in a Sarajevo safe house as the city was being bombed during the Bosnian War. As a case officer for the Directorate of Operations, Baer worked mostly abroad, in the field rather than behind a desk at headquarters in Langley, Virginia. He first cut his teeth in India, then was moved to the Middle East where he learned to speak fluent Arabic. He spent a lot of time in Lebanon during its civil war, as well as Khartoum, Tunis, Dushanbe and some other places the CIA has kept him from divulging in print. In a sense, Colorado was a homecoming. Baer, though born in California, was uprooted by an adventurous mother and taken to Europe as a child. When money ran out, they returned to AmericaAspen to be exact, where the teenage Baer decided he didn’t need an education as much as daily ski practice in order to become a downhill ski champion. When his mother found out he’d gotten straight F’s, she shipped him off to a military academy in the flatlands of Indiana. Now back in the Rocky Mountains, hiking with Dayna and his dogs or skiing down untouched powder is how he punctuates his new life devoted to writing books. His latest, Blow the House Down is a gritty, action-packed spy novel that offers its own speculative hypothesis as to who was behind 9/11.


His first book See No Evil, which became the basis for the film starring George Clooney, is “a memoir of one foot soldier’s career in the other cold war, the one against terrorist networks that have no intention of collapsing under their own weight as the Soviet Union did. It’s a story about places most Americans will never travel to, about people many Americans would prefer to think we don’t need to do business with.” It gives a picture of the secret world of espionage in the Middle East that is not only rife with adventure and high-octane paranoia, but also political infighting and glaring ineptitude. A far cry from any James Bond film.


For example, he goes into details about how in early 1995, while secretly stationed in the Kurdish area of Iraq and working with figures such as Ahmed Chalabi and Jalal Talabani, he helped the CIA organize a coup against Saddam Hussein. The Clinton administration got cold feet at the last minute and national security advisor Anthony Lake sent Baer a cable saying the plot had been comprised and “any decision to proceed will be on your own.” The Iraqi plotters were left to their own devices. Not only did the coup fail, but the U.S. government denied an attempt was made.


Baer also recounts how in the mid 1980s he wanted to incite Hafez al-Assad, then president of Syria, to crack down on Hezbollah – which was being tolerated, if not encouraged, by Damascus – much the way he had crushed Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood in the Hama massacre of 1982, after they’d tried to assassinate him. The plan was to scare Syrian diplomats in Europe and make them believe they were targets of Hezbollah. “It was supposed to work like this: One night a half-dozen clandestine CIA tech teams would hook up low-order explosives to the ignitions of the Syrian diplomats’ cars. The next morning, when the diplomats started their cars, there would be a pop and a fizz. (Low-order explosives burn rather than explode, but the chemical composition is nearly identical to a real explosive. The police, I figured, would assume the terrorists had simply been sold a bad batch of plastique.) Afterward we’d put out a fake communiqué claiming the attacks in the name of Hezbollah, and an angry Assad would come down on Hezbollah… I wrote it up in a cable to all our offices in Europe.”


Understandably, the more bureaucratically inclined officers were appalled at the idea of setting off bombs in Western Europe and told Baer to “think of something else – minus the plastique.” In his book Bear was not allowed to describe the operation that eventually went through. “I can say, though, that while it managed to irritate Hafez al-Assad – sort of like a 24-hour diaper rash – it wasn’t enough for him to shut down Hezbollah.”


There are many aspects of his career that Baer is not allowed to divulge in print because he is bound to a contractual agreement made when he first started working with the CIA. His books See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold our Soul for Saudi Crude (the book that largely inspired Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11) had to be submitted to the agency and certain passages deleted. Rather than rework those pages, Baer chose to leave in the blotted-out lines. Surprisingly, even to Baer, there’s a lot of information that didn’t get blotted out. “It just goes to show you how much they read. They were more concerned with the photos of the passport application” of Talal Husni Hamiya, an Iranian-backed Lebanese agent responsible for two terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires.


Over time Baer became disaffected with the CIA. The agency he left in 1997 was not the same one he joined in 1976. It had become increasingly “enamored of satellite technology and scared of its own shadow.” But the disaffection within the ranks of CIA was not unique. Sipping his coffee, Baer matter-of-factly describes how the Russians and British had the same problems. “You have to have people in the system who believe in it. That’s how you keep a secret.”


But believing in a system that has habitually turned a blind eye to its enemies, as Baer sustains, in order not to disrupt a steady flow of wealth – primarily in the form of oil, military expenditures and sundry “gifts” from the Gulf countries – is not easy.


Even worse perhaps than ineptitude is stupidity. What really gets Baer roiling is the combination of ignorance and arrogance displayed by those running the so-called “War on Terror.” When asked about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the supposed mastermind of 9/11, now awaiting a military tribunal in Guantánamo, his voice looses its mellow Western cadence.


“What do we know about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? He was tortured, right? Water-boarding… Once you start ripping apart international law going back to the Treaty of Westphalia, what normally comes out of it? Chaos. You know, back to a Hobbesian state of nature… Just no good can come of it. And I’m not sure how you can turn back history and go back to a state of chaos and rebuild it with the brain power in Washington… I mean, they’re going to pass a resolution essentially disregarding the Geneva Conventions.”


When I play devil’s advocate and suggest that the reality of asymmetrical warfare (i.e., against clandestine enemies) might require “tweaking” the Geneva Conventions, he dismisses it as if he’s heard the argument too many times.


“No, they’re fucking idiots. The logic behind it is: Look if Qaeda captures you, they’re not going to follow Geneva Conventions, so why should we? That’s as deep as the logic goes. I mean you don’t think the animosity and hate was as deep between Catholics and Protestants in the 17th century? You don’t think the Catholic Inquisition had just as much moral outrage and thought that right was on their side as we do now? So we go back to the Inquisition. I’m not sure that’s a good sign of progress. And plus I don’t trust the interrogators. Trust me, I can make anybody say anything they want once you put them under torture.”


As part of his training Baer was taught how to extract secrets as well as not divulge them.


He adds, “The point is if you go in there and structure the questions: What was your relationship with Bin Laden? When did Bin Laden know about it? How did he recruit the people?… and you avoid the answers you don’t want, like Saudi Arabia or Iran or an inside job or anything, you’d never get the answers, would you? Especially if they never come for trial. And what does he [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] care? I mean Bin Laden’s already said he did it. So give’em the details and stop the pain.”


Asked if he buys into any of the various 9/11 conspiracy theories out there (Blow the House Down offers an admittedly fictional one) he takes a more subdued tone: “We’ve got grosso modo the details of 9/11. Having been someone who’s involved in conspiracies, they’re really hard to do. They’re best done with one person who dies right after the conspiracy.”


Secrets are the currency of the spy’s trade, and while Baer seems to be revealing his own secrets, you get the sense that his friendly demeanor could just as easily be loosening you up to reveal something of yourself.


“You know, I worked with Delta Force and did intelligence for them in Lebanon. What they said was you couldn’t recruit a shooter – one that would actually knock down a door and shoot people in a room – under the age of 30. And I would say that with very few exceptions you can’t trust anybody under 30 with a secret. I’m talking about Americans. At least I wouldn’t. I’m not talking about Chechens or people that live in some god-awful place, I’m talking about Westerners. We have a spoiled lifestyle, and I think people mature at a later age in the West... If you think knowing a secret and giving it up is a big deal, it makes you stand out, it makes you a more special member of society – which of course is bullshit – you don’t realize that it just doesn’t matter... You have much more of a sense of irony when you get older.”


Baer describes how the worst thing to happen to the CIA was Aldrich Ames, the American spy who gave away hugely important secrets to the KGB and was arrested in 1994. As a result the CIA blamed the polygraph division, which regularly submits CIA employees to lie-detector tests, and they started raising standards.


This in turn has created a whole new dilemma for a CIA that now desperately needs people who speak Arabic and other Central Asian languages. “That’s why the CIA doesn’t know anything,” he insists. “The point is you do need a Pakistani-American who speaks Urdu, who speaks Arabic, loyal to this country, who can go to Saudi Arabia, who can go to tribal areas in Pakistan, where Bin Laden presumably is, and fit in – which you and I can’t do. But those guys, it’s really hard to get them through a polygraph, or through a security background investigation because if you are a native Urdu-speaker you probably have a relative that’s in the Pakistani army… And he goes back to his village and he can’t possibly lie to uncle Ahmed about where he really works. And uncle Ahmed tells his cousins and the discipline falls apart… So the CIA is basically in fortresses, medieval fortresses. They don’t come out. And they wait for somebody to come up to the draw bridge and say ‘I got a secret.’”


As a result it’s very difficult to infiltrate Al Qaeda and its spin-offs. It’s easier for them to infiltrate the West.


“The 19 people that were on those airplanes were vetted from a very early age. Fifteen grew up in Saudi Arabia; they had people looking at them: clerics at Koran classes, family, friends. Their innermost thoughts were subject to someone’s looking at them. But this is the way Americans think: ‘Why can’t we send someone with brown eyes to Jeddah, get into a mosque, join one of these teams and then they’d be on the American Airlines flight whatever and jump up like a ninja and karate chop the hijackers in the middle of this?’ And that’s a Hollywood ending. But it just doesn’t work that way.”


To further make his point, Baer adds: “I mean you can’t go meet a guy, a taxi driver, and say, ‘I’ve got a plan. Why don’t you go back to your village, join, betray your clan, and then you’re going to become Bin Laden’s security guard and put some sort of GPS transmitter on his toilet seat and kill him with a Hellfire missile’ – because what are you going to offer the guy? He’s probably a believer, if he’s from that village. His clan is his whole life. And what are you going to do, give him a week’s pass to Disney World? For helping us kill Bin Laden? Which is about what they offer.


Baer has the natural ability to spin a yarn, often with the salty language of a barroom raconteur. But if need be, he can confide and convince with a more scholarly, diplomatic approach. The voice, like the face, tends to oscillate between the two.


But what comes through most sincerely is a man who feels he was put in a position to gather vital intelligence, and do important work, only to witness his efforts systematically compromised by blindness and incompetence. And to raise the irony to almost absurd proportions, his career came to a premature end largely because of a criminal investigation ordered by Anthony Lake immediately after the aborted coup in 1995. The accusation: conspiracy to commit premeditated murder – the murder of Saddam Hussein. A conspiracy that the NSC not only knew about, Baer claims, but authorized through Martin Indyk, Lake’s assistant for the Near East.


But Baer’s criticism is decidedly bipartisan, which is obvious when he talks about the ongoing debacle in Iraq. “On the American side. I think Perle, Feith, Addington, all these guys, Eliott Abrams, genuinely believed going into Iraq would do some good. Primarily to protect Israel,” he says calmly. At the suggestion that there was an ideological mission to spread democracy he comes back, “Oh the democracy was bullshit. If they believe that, then they really do have room temperature IQs… Blindness. They’ve got blinkers on. I mean they’re idiots if you really think about it. They cannot cope with facts. The fact is that the Shia in Iraq were an agrarian majority who basically cleaned the sewers, picked dates, and the rest of it. For us to go in there and say, ‘Alright, we are going to turn back Islamic history to pre-680 AD and there’s going to be Jeffersonian democracy.’ I mean you’d have to be crazy. I can make for a better case that I could go out on the porch and fly than you’re gonna make Iraq work… They cannot comprehend a foreign country. They can’t comprehend that people have this hate that goes back to wherever.”


His outlook on Iraq is grim. He feels the civil war can last for another decade. “We’re never gonna win… We don’t know who we’re backing.” He compares it the situation in Dino Buzzati’s novel The Tatar Steppe: “We’re waiting for the barbarians. You don’t really know who they are, where they are, or when they’re gonna come. And you’re just sitting in your fort.”


After the tape recorder is shut off and the coffee is finished, we go for hike with the two big Labs (the puppy stays home) to a couloir that Baer intends to ski once the season picks up. Several days ago the mountains saw their first big snowfall. Against the autumnal gold of Colorado’s aspens, Baer talks about politics, writing, celebrity gossip (Is George Clooney gay?), even one of the places where he worked, which the CIA made him keep secret (Damascus). On the way down we loose the blond Lab, Boomer. “He likes to find carcasses.”


When we stop to talk with a skier walking up toward the couloir (we’re miles from any lifts), Boomer reappears with the frozen skeleton of a dear or elk he found in the snow. When both dogs go at it with gusto, Baer points out that they shouldn’t because last time they did the brown lab got sick. Still, he lets them chomp away on the bones during the conversation, as if he secretly understands their innate need to retrieve what others would rather not to look at.

Stash Luczkiw is a poet, fiction writer, translator and journalist originally from New York City. He is now based in Italy where is the editor of Cartier Art magazine.