Robert Baer is a former CIA officer assigned to the Middle East. He the author of two New York Times bestsellers: Sleeping with the Devil, about the Saudi royal family and its relationship with the United States, and See No Evil, which recounts Baer's years as a top CIA operative. See No Evil was the basis for the acclaimed film Syriana, where George Clooney played a character based on Baer. Baer writes regularly for Time and has contributed to Vanity Fair and The Washington Post
What made you join the CIA?
It was a combination of a prank and a sense of adventure. I had this very odd life where I got to travel around a lot and went to strange places at strange times. The whole idea just sort of got into my blood. I knew nothing about the CIA or espionage, but it seemed like an adventure itself and I never expected to get in.
What are some of the commonly held misconceptions about being a spy?
It’s ultimately very dull work. You’re lucky if it is interspersed with serious accomplishment or danger. It is generally waiting for things to happen. And you run into the same kind of mediocrity that you encounter anywhere else in life.
Let’s have a look at your book choices. First up is Black Mass by the British political theorist John Gray.
That book accounts for a lot of things for me. One is how the intelligence was manipulated when we went into Iraq. I used to run Iraqi operations. I knew what was going on there. A narrative was written in national intelligence estimates that justified the war, and that happened in Britain as well. It bled into the belief that we could change the Middle East – that you could speed up human progress there. There was this idea that if you just got rid of a couple of obstacles, then the Middle East would catch up with the vision the US and the UK had of the 21st century. Gray constantly comes back to this happy Christian narrative that humanity is perfectible, that at the end there is this city on the hill, and that man has a purpose. If you are in the intelligence world it is much easier to manipulate that narrative, because intelligence isn’t public.
What kind of intelligence did you see on the ground that was being manipulated?
We knew that Saddam Hussein had already destroyed his weapons of mass destruction, and that he was pretending to keep them in order to deter Iran.
In both the US and the UK there were protests against going to war, and a feeling that the intelligence didn’t stack up. So why do you think Bush and Blair still went ahead with it?
I don’t believe that it was for oil. I think Blair and Bush have a Christian foundation to their way of looking at the world which motivated them. They really thought that if they could just get rid of Saddam, it would help convert the unbelievers.
It sounds like a crusade.
Yes. There was the idea that you could tell a benign lie. You saw it in World War I when they talked about the Belgian nuns and the Huns – all that propaganda was to manipulate the US into getting involved. So there was this idea of misusing facts to achieve a higher good.
And how did you feel about what was going on, knowing the true evidence?
I went to the journalist Judith Miller and told her they don’t know these things, and that The New York Times shouldn’t be leading with front page stories saying there are weapons of mass destruction, or writing about “Al-Qaeda and Saddam” – it was just wrong. We sort of knew about that one meeting that happened between one of [Saddam Hussein’s] intelligence officers and Bin Laden in Khartoum, and nothing came of it. I think it is overly cynical to think that Bush was doing favours for his friends in the oil industry. That is just simplistic. I think the man was seriously flawed and was looking for a cause. It was this fascination with the Middle East, and with Christianity and Muslims and the rest of it, that drove him. Also he was just not very bright!
For my part, when you know intelligence is being manipulated, you learn to weigh up what is good and what is bad intelligence. There is nothing like a good intercept to get at a truth, or photography from satellites. Those two things really force your nose into reality. Human sources and informants are often the worst, although sometimes they can be very good. You look at enough intelligence and you start to assemble a view of the world. It gives you a predictive ability that most people don’t get to have from just reading the newspapers. And then when your predictions turn out to be wrong, you go back and adjust how you weigh information, and what you do with it.
And you think that John Gray’s book shows what was really going on.
Yes, and he also looks at why it was going on. His book answered the question as to why they were lying.
Next up is Travels into Bokhara by Alexander Burnes, a 19th century British traveller and explorer who took part in the Great Game.
Alexander Burnes was an officer at the time, and he travelled to Central Asia. He was a truly brilliant linguist, unlike Lawrence of Arabia, who was a bad linguist. This book plunges you into Afghanistan, in particular, and the tribal areas of Pakistan. He covers that whole area from Peshawar through to Bukhara, and it is an intelligence nightmare. He brings this out very graphically in his wanderings through those regions.
Why is that area such a nightmare?
It’s the geography, and it’s a stubbornness you find amongst these people in confiding in outsiders, or anybody not in their tribe. They have this ability to carry on a war forever. If you go back to Burnes, you will understand that changing this area on our terms will never happen.
So there is the sense of history repeating itself. What else do you think early spies like Burnes can show us?
There is a guy who wrote a Pashto dictionary for the British army, and he talks about the British army not having any Pashto speakers. And that is exactly what is happening now. These days the British and Americans are all using Dari speakers, so they are already taking sides in a civil war. It is impossible to try to occupy a place where you can’t communicate with the people in any sense. The truth is out there for anyone to pick up, and one of the truths about Afghanistan is in Burnes’s book.
Critics say that your next choice, The Insurrection in Mesopotamia by Aylmer Haldane, proves that warfare in the Middle East has changed very little.
What we are seeing today in Iraq is the beginnings of a second Shia uprising, against the US in particular now that we are sort of the only ones left there.
But this book was set in the early 20th century.
Yes, and it is about a tribal uprising which came as a surprise to the British. When they first saw it, they couldn’t interpret it. They were occupiers living in compounds, without any sense of the country – much like what is going on today. I think Churchill called the place an ungrateful volcano, and that’s what it is. It’s not possible to impose a nation within those borders, especially when outsiders try to do it.
So how can you effectively go about spying in a place like that?
Gertrude Bell did. She got a good sense of the country. She was an English writer, archaeologist, political officer and traveller, around at the turn of the 20th century. I think you need long exposure and you have to have the Foreign Office – or for us the State Department – listening to people there. If you look at the war in Iraq, anyone with any sense at all said this is a really stupid idea. Any Iraqi who’d spent time in his country said the same thing. Still, Whitehall and the White House excluded them from the conversation, as did the newspapers.
There is talk that since 9/11 the US and the UK have upped their game in espionage. Do you think that is the case?
I don’t think things have really got much better. I suppose more money has been put into things like telephone intercepts. The real improvement in conducting warfare in remote areas is the drones, but that’s not intelligence. It’s a military weapon. For legal reasons the CIA takes care of it, but it is a Department of Defense weapon.
But for me, better intelligence means getting better at languages and having longer real exposure to the hard parts of the world. Not long ago, I met an Australian anthropologist who spent five years in the tribal areas of Pakistan. He speaks Pashto, and he got a sense of it because he was actually living there and knew all the people in the tribes. And they confided in him. But what intelligence agency has the leisure or the will to put somebody in one of these areas for any length of time? It is this bureaucratic, Harvard Business School approach to intelligence. If you can sell widgets you sell them and it doesn’t matter where you are. Numerous agents based in Beijing don’t speak Mandarin – that is fairly normal.
Let’s move on to your next book, The Tartar Steppe by Dinno Buzzati.
This book is all about Italians stationed on a remote Eurasian frontier. Of course they never were, but The Tartar Steppe is a metaphor for devoting your life to a higher good, for wanting to do public service and to make a difference. And you essentially give up everything. The main character, Giovanni Drogo, gives up his fiancée, his mother and his friends to wait for the Tartars who never come. There is this horrible fort where he lives, this daily grind and no sense of normal life. His life is wasted.
And a real sense of alienation that many people in intelligence face.
I hear from the military over and over again how difficult it is to be in a deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan, where you are away from home for so much of the time. It was like that for me when I was in the CIA. You come back and people forget who you are.
Often in the military they are desperate to go back again, because that has become their reality.
Yes, it gives them meaning in life. It is warfare. Of course, if you have to look at it from the point of view of the people you leave behind it is an act of betrayal. It is like, if you really care about us you would get a job here and stay home. And it is an act of betrayal. It is saying, “I don’t really need you people, because there is something more important.” That is the basic message.
Why do you think people put themselves through it?
I had a bad marriage. People say, “Boy, aren’t you brave going to these places.” Well, that is not the whole truth. It is easy to run away. It is probably the easiest way to run away. So many people come to me and tell me tall stories about dads who worked for the CIA, and had to go away. But they never worked for the CIA – they had second families and ran away. I do public speaking and I see this myth repeatedly. If you are running away, you are lying to yourself that you are doing something important that justifies what you’ve done.
Let’s finish with John le Carré’s classic spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
This is beautifully written. But more than that, it is really about counter intelligence taking pieces of information which send you off on a hunt. It is no different than the hunt for Bin Laden, where they took isolated fragments of information and tracked him down. And this is what you see in Smiley. He takes bits of information to find the mole. Anyone who has been on a mole hunt, or watched one from the outside, will say this is the way it goes. And le Carré has the ability to add drama and colour. The Cambridge Five were such a fascinating group. The handler went back to Russia and was executed, but that is another story. For classic espionage in a little town in Germany, you can’t do better than le Carré.