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Interview with Robert Baer

During his 25-year CIA career, ROBERT BAER has publicly acknowledged field assignments in India, Tunisia, Syria, the Sudan, Lebanon, France, Morocco, Tajikistan, Iraq and Bosnia. Baer left the Agency in 1997 and received the CIA's Career Intelligence Medal in March 1998. Through his years as a clandestine officer, he gained a very thorough knowledge of the Middle East, the Arab world and former Republics of the Soviet Union. He speaks Arabic, Farsi, French and German fluently. Baer's books See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil were the basis for the 2005 Academy Award®-Winner Syriana. The film's character Bob Barnes (played by George Clooney) is loosely based on Baer. For this role, Clooney won a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. For the past two years, Robert Baer has worked closely with Many Rivers Films, a Channel 4 production company in the U.K., and presented two authoritative documentary series on the origins of suicide bombing. In 2006, Cult of the Suicide Bomber I was nominated for an Emmy.

Tribeca Film Festival:   Your panel, “Spies Like Them”, promises to “crack the code behind the public’s fascination with espionage on the big screen.” Why do you think we, as an entertainment-hungry public have become so fascinated with that world?

Robert Baer:   Because it’s a secret world, and it goes on behind curtains. And anything that is not public—the documents and the arguments and the rest of it—will always be a mystery. And it doesn’t really matter how mundane or un-sexy that world often is. People will look at it as forbidden knowledge and will always be interested in it. I confront this all the time because I write fiction of what to do with the spy world. If you really approached it like it exists, you would have the kind of literary novel where almost nothing happens.

Tribeca:   It doesn’t quite make sense from that perspective.

Baer:   A literary reference I like to site is John Banfield who won the Booker last year for The Sea. But not much happens in it. But to go back and answer your question, it’s one of the last great mysteries: what happens behind the walls of the CIA. And the KGB. And it remains a mystery for me too, in a sense, because so much of the stuff of the CIA is what’s called compartmented. It’s hidden behind walls where they’re trying to protect sources. And it becomes a mystery for me. Now it is translating that onto the big screen which takes a lot of talent.

Tribeca:   To not trivialize it or…

Baer:   Yeah, or make it dull as dishwater. I mean, I suppose you could make a movie like that, but nobody would go see it.

Tribeca:   We expect something pretty extraordinary from the CIA. And sexy.

Baer:   Well you know like The Bourne Identity. Three Days of the Condor. Movies like that.

Tribeca:   What is your take on movies like that? How do you respond?

Baer:   Well, I would much rather see a movie like that where something is going on—driven by a plot and good and evil—than a literary movie.

Tribeca:   Do you mean as a viewer?

Baer:   As a viewer. Watching something like The Bourne Identity is more interesting for me than watching something that appears to be real. I prefer movies to go over the top. I had technical difficulties with Munich because I was an insider—I watched, peripherally, Israelis assassinate people—in fact they shot one of my sources. But the problem I had with that movie, and 99% of viewers are not even going to notice it, is that you do not send teams out to Europe with lethal weapons on them, and let them go around and do their business as independents. It makes for a good movie. But I would prefer if it went, like, way over the top. If it didn’t try to be real.

Tribeca:   Like a James Bond type of movie?

Baer:   I like James Bond. That’s exactly it. You know, James Bond is over-the-top. Not based in reality. But it makes a better movie.

Tribeca:   So the danger is that a movie like Munich makes us think we know what’s happening.

Baer:   Yeah—but that wasn’t really an espionage movie. It was a conflict over whether this was moral or not. But I contend with this all day. I’m trying to write a novel now. I could write you an espionage movie that would just bore you to tears.

Tribeca:   Coffee, cigarettes, International Herald Tribune…

Baer:   Well—espionage is really about two people in a room talking. Your source shows up at the meeting. He doesn’t get caught coming to the meeting. You sit in a room and you talk and he tells you things. And then he comes back a month later and he tells you new things. And then you sit down and you write a message back to Washington telling them what he said, and then they come back and give you your answers. It’s that sort of thing that Hollywood couldn’t film: two people sitting in a room talking.

Tribeca:   From your perspective, and I know you may have to kill me if you answer this question, do you think we’re in any way the wiser for all the media coverage that provides a daily illusion that we understand such large, complex, global issues?

Baer:   I think the films do a disservice to America’s understanding of Intelligence. I think we saw this in Iraq. The average American will say, “Surely we had someone in Baghdad before and leading up to this war. Surely we were in touch with the Sunni insurgency.” And then they say, “What do you mean we didn’t have someone under deep cover posing as a Pakistani living in Baghdad, selling oil and knowing Saddam’s kids?” This doesn’t make sense to Americans. What they know about espionage comes from a couple dozen dull, dull memoirs. And what they can say is limited. So in a lot of ways people ask the question: Well why didn’t the CIA send someone into Baghdad to assassinate Saddam? We see this on the big screen all the time.

Tribeca:   Meaning, wouldn’t that have been easier?

Baer:   Yeah—wouldn’t it have been easier—or, why didn’t the CIA have somebody in the middle of the WMD, knowing that this guy had gotten rid of it.

Tribeca:   Well- what’s your answer to that?

Baer:   Well, you can’t blame it on Hollywood. That’s like blaming smoking on Hollywood because people get to smoke in movies. Come on. I mean it’s entertainment, and the ideal CIA movie is something that could more or less be grounded in facts and at the same time have a driving plot. Which is the mythical beast that everybody’s looking for right now. They call me up and they ask me and I just sort of say, “Well I don’t know.”

Tribeca:   Do you think this age of information overload that we are entering, or rather have firmly entered, can provide us with a trustworthy image of ourselves and our role as global participants in this world? Or do you think we’re being over-saturated in some way?

Baer:   Well, we’re being over-saturated by stereotypes. There’s a good piece in the New York Times about Iyad Allawi who said the exiles were fighting for a country they remember from their childhood. Which no longer exists, so we are all fighting stereotypes. We are fighting oversimplification. Whereas the director of Syriana told me all the time—get into a scene late and get out early. Which makes this whole MTV view of the world. You know, you just miss the subtleties.

Tribeca:   Speaking of Syriana, what were your thoughts and how did you respond to watching it on the “big screen” so to speak. Were you in any way disappointed, or did it capture what you were trying to convey? I saw that movie four times and I’m still a little lost.

Baer:   Well I knew all the stories. As did Stephen Gaghan (Writer, Director), about who the prince was. Who the lawyer was. All the facts were changed. Only Gaghan and I can tell you who they really were. But it was an intelligent movie, and he was taking the whole Traffic template, of course, and putting it on Oil and Intelligence. Which is a tall order. Because the other choice was to end up like Three Days of the Condor, where you have this shadowy conspiracy and people smoking cigars. And a blunt ending. This one (Syriana) was ambiguous. I thought George Clooney was great.

Tribeca:   So what are you working on now?

Baer:   A novel. Talking about exactly the same problems we’re talking about right now.

Tribeca:   Are you enjoying the writing?

Baer:   I don’t think anybody really enjoys it. I mean you can go back and see where you get successes and it’s enjoyable.

Tribeca:   But you feel compelled to tell the story.

Baer:   No I feel compelled to learn. One of the books that everybody laughs about in Hollywood is Story—Robert McKee’s book. But I find it just fantastic for fiction. Things that a screenwriter learned years and years before he puts anything on paper, but for someone who’s written non-fiction, it’s a great book. I mean you have to take it on from there, but it’s not easy to do. You know in the government you have to write every piece of relevant information in the first two sentences. Try that in fiction.

We were told never to write an intelligence report longer than a page because it wouldn’t be read. And that becomes the style as you get better—writing inside the CIA. You write a report that’s one page—that has the facts. And it ends there. So taking that skill—who, what, when, where and why.

Tribeca:   What are you reading right now?

Baer:   I’m reading John Banville’s new book, Christine Falls.

Tribeca:   What books would you take with you to a deserted island?

Baer:   Remembrance of Things Past. I was in Sarajevo for the civil war, and read most of it—in French. And something lighter. Some Elmore Leonard.

Tribeca:   What is the one thing you care about most right now and what would you do to change it?

Baer:   Global Warming. Absolutely. The environment. That’s all I care about.

Tribeca:   What is the best piece of advice your mother or father gave you and why?

Baer:   Get an education. And read. Because reading is a great solace.

Tribeca:   Do you have any secret talents?

Baer:   The talent I always wanted, which I never have been able to do, is to lick your nose with your tongue. But my tongue’s not long enough. Wouldn’t you love to do that? When somebody’s rude to you? Just be able to do that?

Tribeca:   Like the ultimate flip-off?

Baer:   Yeah, it’s crude in a way, but it’s not a cliché or banal.

Tribeca:   Only you would really know what was being said.

Baer:   And it would leave people dumbfounded.


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