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Robert Baer: "We have to change course"
By Hannah Eaves
June 20, 2006 - 7:12 AM PDT

"This war was an act of folly. Total folly."

The strength of the film for me seems to lie in the portrayal of the families and communities of the suicide bombers.

You know, I almost look at this as a CIA briefing. In the CIA, we were taught to go to policy makers and tell them what we believe is the truth, tell them why we believe it's the truth, and not give any solutions. The solutions are for the audience. Or for the President. Or the CIA director, and I was happy with the film in those terms. Intellectually, this film does not aspire to address the psychology of suicide, world-wide or in the Middle East, or how you fix it. It's just [that] these are the people, it's in your face, you're seeing them the way they are. Some of the truth remains disguised. I'm sure their families are just absolutely broken by these suicide bombings of their kids, but won't say it in front of Western media. Once you factor that in, you say, "Here are the facts, you figure it out."

You seem to be pretty much an isolationist. In your opinion, what policy should the US have to counter the tactical use of suicide bombing?

I take the mental position of these people that we're dealing with in the Middle East, without having any moral... I mean, I have my own opinions, but I try to separate [them], in that these people basically want to be left alone. They see us taking sides, and when we take sides, we're going to get hit, whether it's in the Middle East or it's in Iraq or it's in Iran or in the Gulf, and we have to find a way to really go back to a neutrality in the Middle East. We can't take the side of the Shi'a or the Sunni or the Christians or any of the small groups, because that's when you become party to the conflict. And the sooner we get out of that the better. The United States is the country least capable of all the "European" countries because we have the shallowest understanding of what drives these people. The British understand it because it's a way station for Arabs, for Muslims, for Iranians, Saudis, which Washington, even New York, doesn't have. We don't speak the language, we don't have Oxford or Cambridge, I could go on and on and on - and we don't have the experience of owning colonies. Everything dictates against us being in the Middle East.

But you seem to support US-backed coups or revolutionary armies. Is that just diplomatic support?

Coups don't work, but everything goes back to Iraq and the war. This war was an act of folly. Total folly. It's something I get angry about and I should probably stop talking about, because every time there's a minor success it's billed, like with the Zarqawi killing, like we're going to turn the corner. Maliki forming a government, we're going to turn a corner. And the violence just gets worse. It just drags on and on and on. And people are not facing the facts of this situation and it's that America cannot impose a centralized government on the Iraqis. Maybe after 100 years it could. And no one is dealing with the facts of suicide bombings, of the fact that Iran is preeminent in Iraq, that the Sunnis are fighting for their survival. We're doing nothing to help. We have to change course.

How do you think things would have been different if the US had supported a revolution in Iraq in the mid-1990s?

Well, what we were counting on, what we wanted to go for was to leave the political system in place and get rid of Saddam. And the idea was leave the Sunni in place, the military and intelligence service, and they were violent, yes, but Iraq's the kind of country where you need a gradual change. You can't overnight tell the 20 percent of the population that have been ruling Iraq for hundreds of years, long before the British, that you're out of power, you have no income, oh, and by the way, your version of Islam no longer holds this country. To think that we weren't going to have trouble there was just an act of folly.

What can you tell me about the bad intelligence that was showcased before the US invasion of Iraq? How do you feel about the intelligence that was gathered before the war and how that fits in with your experiences at the CIA?

Well, it was bad. And I have direct experience because I was the Deputy Chief of Iraqi operations for a couple of years. I was in Iraq. I knew what the forces were, what we knew and what we didn't. The honest answer when the President asked, or the Vice President asked, was that we didn't know. Yes, we suspect he has WMD. The CIA and the FBI said categorically early on before the war that there was no connection that we knew about between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Yet they took this fragmentary information through the Wall Street Journal, through, I don't know where, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and put out these lies about terrorists being trained in Salman Pak. There's an article about Chris Hedges and PBS in Mother Jones. It's a great article where the press is being led by the exiles and by lobbying groups and institutions in Washington who wanted the war. A lot of this stuff was fed to them from the White House - they were selling a war. They were selling a voluntary war and everybody seemed to go along.

You complain a lot about the ramping down of the CIA, and the diminishing number of field officers (spies). Is that still the case, or are they now trying to build up a bigger presence in the Middle East?

They're trying, but it's so hard to bring that back because it takes so long to get an officer up to speed. You've got the problem with language. Arabic takes about 10 years to get to the point where someone really knows it and can use it. Persian's the same way. You have a problem with getting in multi-ethnic case officers through the security exam, so you have a lot of white-bread people, mall culture, they probably haven't lived overseas very much. And then they say, "Okay, we're going to change your life. You're going to be a spook and we're going to send you to Yemen for ten years, and don't forget that you can't really take your husband or your wife because there's nothing to do there." You know it's not going to be easy. And then you have that whole Porter Goss thing where the CIA lost a whole layer of management, fighting with the former director. It's going to take a long time. We'll see about this new guy. He hasn't been in long enough to set a track record. But he's saying the right things. He's saying the CIA's broken. When he said, "The amateur hour's over," it's as good as saying it's broken.

When you were working in the Middle East, did you get a sense that there was a specific group called Al-Qaeda?

We knew it to be a movement that coalesced around Osama bin Laden, but he wasn't taken seriously in the early 90s. He hadn't done any attacks. We were still worried about Hezbollah [and] the Iranians, who were conducting attacks in Argentina and in Lebanon. And you can only sort of follow one terrorist group, so that by 1996, when he moved to Afghanistan, he wasn't taken particularly seriously. The Clinton administration probably could have taken him from the Sudanese, but there was no indictment, nobody knew what he was going to become, and I think we all missed, including myself, this whole Sunni radicalization that occurred from 1996 on. You've got the problems with the Palestinians, you've got suicide bombings, you've got divisions in Lebanon, the sheer presence of the United States in Saudi Arabia was grating on people. And then all of a sudden, you saw this welling of support which we saw on September 11th, 2001. And it came as a surprise, but it shouldn't have come too much as a surprise because if you take all the pieces, the Africa bombings, the attempt to hijack an airplane in Algeria and hit Paris in a suicide bombing, all the things you know about, it should have been pieced together. Had the CIA warned the FBI about these guys in San Diego in 2000 in January, this could have been stopped. There's no question in my mind.

Do you think that there will be other suicide bombings in America?

Oh, I think, how could there not be? As long as we're taking sides, it's a matter of time. There's no big brain controlling this. It's a matter of getting somebody in from Canada or Mexico or somebody locally and pulling this stuff up on the Internet. We are not a police state here. We've got 12 to 15 million people; we don't know who they are in this country. There are no defenses. You can get drivers licenses on the Internet, you can get IDs, you can get Social Security numbers, and there's no enforcement. So you don't know who's in the country or what's going on and the FBI can't spy on everybody! There's a corporate interest in not controlling immigration. You can let as many as you want in but you don't give them legal status or give them IDs because it keeps wages down. Once you start issuing these people IDs and making them legitimate they're going to ask for a living wage, and who would want that? It's basically slave labor.

But no one defines it in those terms. It's an important debate when you're looking at why the United States hasn't been hit or what it's doing about terrorism. It's idiocy to think that we're fighting terrorism in Iraq and not controlling our borders. And for Cheney to say there hasn't been an attack because of Iraq; it's as logical as saying it's because of the sun spots that there hasn't been an attack.

I'd like to ask you about the Valerie Plame Wilson affair, and what perspective you might have on that coming from the CIA.

It's been misrepresented in the press, or not understood. And the CIA people that have been in the press have not helped. She was not truly what we would call a non-official cover officer. These are people that work in corporations that are sent overseas to whatever country and they collect intelligence. They never go in a building, they are never associated with the US government, many of them are foreign nationals. This woman had government cover when she went to Athens. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube with this. So betraying her cover was not such a big deal.

Number two is, it's highly unusual to send somebody's husband out who had been an ambassador to check on a clandestine report. And it's even more unusual or unheard of for that person to decide the intelligence is not being used correctly and then write an op-ed piece. You're basically under contract if you've worked for the CIA in any capacity to clear public statements, or books in my case, with the CIA. On the other hand, the White House outing her in the press just further demoralized the CIA. So there are no good guys in this story. And we still don't know whether they outed her intentionally. They may have not known whether she was undercover or not. These guys just don't understand what cover is. No one's been charged with breaking the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. For all we know, Scooter Libby was just furious that they got blindsided by this.

But on the other hand, lying about the Niger documents, putting it in the State of the Union and all that, is unacceptable, too. The whole thing is unseemly on all sides. I mean, I'm fully with Joe Wilson on the intellectual argument side about the war, and I'm fully with her that she didn't deserve this, but on the other hand, once your husband goes into the public arena, it's just a matter of sitting down and waiting for the flak to come the other way. They all know that.

You must still have friends in the CIA. What is the atmosphere like now?

Bad. Bad. Still very bad. They just tell me things are getting even worse. This has not been since [Air Force General Michael] Hayden, so I don't know. Nothing much has happened since he got in. People are leaving. Did you see the New York Times today?

No, not yet.

Look it up. There's a great article about people getting into counter-terrorism and quitting to take seven-figure salaries. That's basically what's happening at the CIA. You take your security clearance, top secret, and you get out and you go work for whomever, and you cash in, send your kids to college, buy a bigger house, buy a new car, whatever people do with their money. They laugh at me because, you know, I'm a writer now. It's funny because people in my generation who got out, not that I compare incomes, are making way beyond what I could make as a writer or having a movie or the rest of it.

Robert Baer with a cleric in Qom

But you have an attachment to the issues that are going on.

I can take the moral high ground!

And at least you can say that you really believed in the job that you were doing and that you felt something about it.

Yeah, I did all along. I mean, when I first came in, it was a joke, a prank almost, then I started to believe in it. And then as I started to see the way things work. I got disgusted and resigned and wrote sort of a tell-all book. An angry book. The best kind of book is an angry book. People really feel these things, but the system carries on unchanged. In fact, it's just gotten worse. My book has made no difference to anybody. People who already suspected it say, "Yes, it's good," and the other people are saying, "Oh, we're doing just fine."

I think most people just feel helpless in the face of what's going on.

Well, they should feel helpless. With no oversight over the intelligence community, it's bleeding good people. The beaurocratic changes aren't going to help at all, [they] just further demoralize the place, and the people are featherbedding and leaving to get good contracts. It's just making things worse and worse at a time when we're probably going to get hit with another terrorist attack. And what scares me is what they're going to go after - they're going to blame it on the press or something. Or the critics.

Could you tell me a little bit about your novel?

It's an alternative history of 9/11, which I wrote as fiction because some of the conclusions I drew I couldn't support with facts, only with inference. It's about the Iranian role and what we don't know. It's a "what if" novel, I guess you might call it. It's fiction, it's fun writing, I like it, and I've started a second novel. It's thrown me back on other writers. I drive my publisher crazy because I'm looking at literary fiction, against all conventions. I'm reading everything [John] Banville's ever written. You know who I'm reading a lot of right now? Peter Carey. My Life as a Fake is a brilliant novel.

You know there is a history of people working in intelligence and writing fiction. There's Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, John Le Carré...

Of course, and that's what we all aspire to. After all, I say I'm reading Peter Carey. I can almost hear him, you know, crying in the distance...

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"It's futile to try to resist it in a half-hearted way."
"This war was an act of folly. Total folly."

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Hannah Eaves
Originally hailing from Australia, the home of greatly-missed Victoria Bitter and the 'laid back life,' Hannah is currently based in San Francisco. Her writing can also be found in SOMA Magazine, The Santa Cruz Sentinel and Intersection Magazine, which she co-publishes with Jonathan Marlow.

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