On Syriana and the CIA

“The Education of Bob Baer – Unlearning the CIA” by Christopher Ketcham, via Counterpunch:

When [Bob Baer] 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. …

When Hollywood came calling after the success of “See No Evil” and Syrianawent 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.

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