Seeing Only Evil, An Interview with Retired CIA Agent Robert Baer
|Thursday, February 2,2006 00:00|
|By Lorna Tychostup, Chronogram|
The first time I went to see Syriana, the friend who accompanied me left after the first half hour. We haven’t really talked about why.
Three years of watching friends’ eyes glaze over while spewing the multitudinous minutia of knowledge I have acquired working in Iraq have silenced me.
I spoke with Baer by phone from his home in Colorado. —LT
Lorna Tychostup: In See No Evil, you talk about how you joined the CIA in 1976, received a Cold War-type of training, and then after the Cold War ended, the CIA was slowly dismantled. Your basic premise is that this dismantling left the US vulnerable to attacks such as 9/11.
Robert Baer: The CIA was set up to counter or foresee state aggression based on the attack on Pearl Harbor; to figure when the US was going to be attacked and to penetrate the leadership of various countries. When the Soviet Union collapsed along with Eastern Europe in the late ’80s, the CIA was left adrift. They didn’t really know what they were going to do. Were they going to support the military in Bosnia? Were they going to collect [information] on narcotics? People started retiring quickly. The mission was over. The political leadership of the CIA didn’t really know what the mission was. There was no leadership and there was no sense that we were at war in the Middle East against fundamentalists. These people never set foot in the Middle East. Politicians, the only place they’d ever been to was Tel Aviv. They just didn’t realize there was this growing hate. If you lived in the Middle East, you knew about it. But no one in the CIA was ever asked, "Is this a problem?" And all the warning signs they missed.
LT: Such as?
RB: In 1994, when Algerians were going to run a commercial airplane into Paris. It was a very well-known case. The French took the airplane back in Marseilles. But no one thought that could ever happen here, and this is in spite of 1996, when they indicted Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind. They stated flat-out, he was going to run—they knew about this from the Philippines investigation—airplanes into American landmarks. Bin Laden in 1994 said he was going to attack the United States, and it was incomprehension at a political level in Washington, that nobody would ever do this.
LT: It spread across many different administrations, not just the Clinton administration?
RB: Republicans. Democrats. Clinton could not care less. He’s just like Bush, completely dismissed the possibility of an insurgency in Iraq. Everybody who had a brain in their head knew that this was conceivable.
LT: In See No Evil you talk of a failed coup in ’95 in Iraq and your attempt to alert people to it. Ahmad Chalabi was involved. Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani was involved. There was actual fighting going on, and they didn’t believe you.
RB: No, they just didn’t believe it because it was cloudy. They couldn’t see it with satellites. Essentially the analysts and a lot of people at the desk level in Washington have grown up in shopping malls, and that’s their reality.
LT: You think it’s that simple?
RB: Sure it’s that simple. They have no idea what an Arab is. There’s this guy that just resigned from the CIA, he ran Iraqi operations, and he said out of the 40 people he had working for him leading up to the war, only two of them had ever met an Arab overseas.
LT: George Bush was in charge of the CIA—
RB: That was the father, but as far as I can tell, he and [Brent] Scowcroft [former National Security Advisor to Presidents Ford and Bush] didn’t approve of this war.
LT: For exactly the reasons that we’re facing now. You also talk about politization and political correctness taking root within the CIA. Why was that happening?
RB: It’s a reflection of the American society. It’s better for the CIA to make people feel better about themselves. For instance, minorities getting respect. They would have in the cafeteria a Cinco de Mayo day with Hispanic food. But were the people on the desk—the people that administered cases overseas—getting the proper respect? If you stayed in Washington and never went overseas, and you worked eight to five, you were put in the same promotion cycle as the people who worked overseas in lousy places like Afghanistan.
LT: The American public has a love/hate relationship with the CIA.
RB: It’s more like a hate relationship.
LT: The CIA is looked upon as being meddlesome in other countries’ business, assassinating people—
RB: Well, it has since 2001. Who were the 16 people that died in that village? [On January 13, US missiles struck a house in Damadola, Pakistan, killing 18 people, including women and children. The intended target of the attack was Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second-in-command. US officials claim the attack may have killed four al Qaeda members, though Zawahiri was not in the house at the time.] This starts to eat away at the consciousness of Americans. I don’t know who actually pulled the trigger. In that village in Pakistan it’s like a black suspect in Washington, DC, murders a white journalist, and the DC police [go] into a black neighborhood and start machine-gunning people because they might be suspects. When these policies are laid off on the CIA, people are mistrustful. In Syriana, whether people liked it or didn’t, their reaction is, "This all happened." You say, "No, it didn’t happen, this is a fictionalized drama."
LT: You’re saying the CIA isn’t involved in these things and was not allowed to be killing people, and yet the CIA in the movie is depicted as such.
RB: Yeah, but I didn’t write the script and it’s not a documentary. They had to get that feeling of dread across. They couldn’t do it by just simply adapting my book. But there are these instances, like the one in Pakistan and the one in Yemen in October in 2002, where you’re killing people on the slightest or wrong information.
LT: We don’t have enough well-trained people on the ground. They don’t know Arabic or Farsi.
RB: It’s also difficult to get in these groups. Remember, they’re made up of true believers. People who are ready to die are not going to be good spies. You could recruit American Arabs, send them over there to work in a business, and then get them to infiltrate these groups. At least you’d know that they were recruiting for suicide operations, and who is doing it now. It’s not rocket science.
LT: No, but the fear is, where is the fine line, then, between you finding out the information and blowing up the house in Pakistan?
RB: We don’t attack the mosques in Saudi Arabia where these people are being recruited. We don’t even want to know. They’re the people who are killing us now. Not Zawahiri. Zawahiri is not in charge of Qaeda. And Qaeda is just an idea. Going after him we’re seeking retribution as opposed to stopping future attacks, which are coming out of Saudi Arabia.
LT: You raise a lot of questions about the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, that the US is locked in a "harmony of interests" that set the stage for 9/11. Give some evaluation of Saudi Arabia, the US’s interests, and why were there 15 Saudis on the planes. Why were Saudi families whisked out of the US? Why do we have this connective tissue?
RB: What’s not mentioned in my book, or in Syriana, is Israel. As far as those people are concerned, Israelis are Americans. Look at the Israelis. They sound American. They’ve got the same sense of humor, the same sense of irony, they dress like Americans; they are like efficient Americans, especially the military.
LT: They’re backed by lots of American dollars.
RB: And American dollars. It’s sort of like if you took a Ku Klux Klan colony and placed it in Detroit and you paid for it. Look at the 9/11 commission. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind, said it’s all about Israel. We have to pay attention.
LT: Osama Bin Laden, in a speech that was released in 2004, said that his soul directed him after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982—
RB: And flattened Beirut. This is an irritant. Not an irritant—this is the cause.
LT: In terms of US connective tissue with Saudi Arabia, you talk about the money, oil, Saudi fundamentalism, and about how the Saudis fund these fundamentalist groups through charitable organizations—
RB: In the book my ideas become simpler and in some cases more refined. The point is that most Muslims—largely, you can’t put a percentage on it—think that we, the US, are at war with Islam. The other fact is that they’ve got 70 percent of the world’s oil resources, so our economic welfare is in their hands, and yet we’re at war with them. That’s the contradiction, that’s [what] it comes down to.
LT: The LA Times published an article recently about how more than half of the Arab fighters in Iraq are Saudis, how millions of dollars continue to flow from wealthy Saudis through Saudi-based Islamic charitable and relief organizations to Al Qaeda and other groups, and that the Saudi government has not come through on any promises to monitor this or to really do anything—
RB: They haven’t done anything. Who are the clerics that recruited the 15 Saudis that were recruited in Saudi Arabia? Who ultimately paid for 9/11? They haven’t given us even the basics.
LT: What about the responsibility of our country to extract those answers from the Saudis?
RB: Well, it’s like the administration’s approach to global warming: Just deny it’s happening and get through the 2006 elections.
LT: A lot of people attached to politics who are ignoring these situations have some level of economic interest.
RB: Well, they do, and [in] getting elected. Any politician that proposes putting 50 cents’ tax on a gallon of gasoline or working up to that will be defeated. We’re addicted to cheap oil—Democrat or Republican. The American people don’t want to know. They say, "What do you mean we have to pay five dollars for a gallon of gasoline? It violates our constitutional rights. You can listen to our phones, but you can’t make us pay five dollars for gasoline. It’s written right there in the Constitution."
LT: We talk about wanting to get Osama Bin Laden, we have oil lobbies that are directing our politicians away from doing anything about any of this.
RB: But it’s also in their interest. Obviously, Syriana was over the top in terms of conspiracies, but they can get away with it because Americans don’t want to pay the real price of oil—no American does.
LT: So you’re saying it’s ultimately—
RB: The people of America’s fault. The irony is, we’re dumping billions and billions of dollars every time we go to the gas pump into a jihad against us in Iraq that’s killing American soldiers. I’ve read, "One kid is dying in Iraq so the father of the kid next door can drive his Hummer." And what’s more, the money’s coming from Japan and China, and in a certain sense from the Middle East, and then it’s filtering back. Blackwater, SAIC, Custer Battle—all these companies just basically got the 20 billion dollars that was supposed to go into construction. Construction was never going to happen.
RB: You can’t dump 20 million dollars in a country in the Middle East and have even a tiny fraction going into real projects. That’s not the way the place works. So when Congress voted for that money, it was out of stupidity. It was either going to go into the hands of the American contractors or into the hands of Iraqi crooks. Iraq is a corrupt system. The only way you can really get around this is simply line the contractors up and shoot them if they stole the money, which of course is not acceptable to Americans. It goes back to Ottoman corruption, corruption under Saddam, where his family was stealing vast amounts of money, taking the oil profits. For us to go in and turn this around overnight was insanity, to think we could do it—nationbuilding.
LT: You opposed the war in Iraq. Why?
RB: I didn’t know about the weapons of mass destruction, whether [Saddam] had them or not; I knew there was no evidence that he had them. The point is, you can’t have us going in and removing the Arab leader. People forget history. Saddam was the shield of the Arabs, which protected them against the Persians. I knew that if we destroyed the Iraqi army, the only thing that’d hold that country together were American forces, which would mean a lifetime commitment. I don’t want to spend my retirement on building a nation in Iraq. There’s one study that came out that said it would cost two trillion dollars if we stay there until 2010. I don’t think if Americans had been told the truth—that we’d have to spend 10 years there and two trillion dollars—that they’d be really excited about this.
LT: Your laying a lot of this at the feet of the Arab community and the corruption. Most of the people I spoke to in Baghdad in February of 2004 loved George Bush and were very happy to be free of Saddam Hussein. They took me to task at times when I said I wasn’t going to vote for George Bush. I was shocked by that.
RB: That’s the initial euphoria. Not to defend Saddam, but if we’re going to liberate the whole world, where are the resources going to come from? Who is going to liberate those tribal areas of Pakistan we’re too afraid to even send a company into? Who is going to liberate Russia, which is going back into czarist times? I just don’t understand the terms of this argument.
LT: I know you talked about Qaddafi, how the US would have done anything to get rid of him. What would the result have been?
RB: The same way in Syria—the Muslim Brotherhood. And you’ve got people at the [conservative] American Enterprise Institute—this is the insanity of Washington—you’ve got AEI saying we’d be better off with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt rather than Mubarak. This is just insanity.
LT: Can you give a brief description of the Muslim Brotherhood?
RB: It’s basically as much as you can unify Islamic fundamentalism. Bin Laden is a Muslim Brother. His tutors were Muslim Brothers. Arafat was a Muslim Brother at one time. It’s a movement that was founded in the early part of the 20th century, saying that the only hope for the Islamic world is to go back to fundamentals, to the Koran, carry out the tenets of the Koran, and live according to the Koran—one of the tenets being jihad in forcing out foreign influence. It’s changed its name hundreds of times since it was founded by Hassan al-Banna. But essentially all these people, and Zawahiri certainly, was a Muslim Brother. They’re very xenophobic, they think the Koran should be the constitution, and [that] it’s permissible to shed blood. All their pronouncements are to the same effect. They’re a very violent organization [with] a political wing and a military wing.
LT: It’s okay, according to the Koran, to assassinate political opponents?
RB: Absolutely. They tried to kill [Egyptian president Abdul] Nassar in Egypt.
LT: The Muslim Brotherhood is a very strong force that has a presence in just about all the Muslim countries?
RB: Probably not just a presence, they probably have a majority that support them. It’s hard to say in a country like Egypt, which doesn’t have legitimate polls, but they did very well in the elections this time.
LT: The Wahabis. In what way are related to the Brotherhood?
RB: They’re an offshoot. They basically say, "Go back to the literal meaning of the Koran." They think that the only salvation of Saudi Arabia and the Muslim people is to return to a religious society, to a caliphate, and if there are any foreigners living in this caliphate, they don’t get to vote—or, during Muhammad’s time, they didn’t get to ride horses. They can’t have religious services, they can’t sell or import Bibles, no liquor. Women have an inferior status. The Wahabis took Najaf and Karbala in 1803 and flattened it. They believed that all Shia should be put to the sword because they’ve fallen away from the true Islam, they’re apostates. Who did we turn Iraq over to? The Shia. So we’re inflaming centuries-old animosities.
LT: You say [the Wahabis] serve as the inspiration of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and other radicals.
RB: Generally, at the risk of oversimplification. The Saudis certainly were happy the Taliban took over, even though they’re not exactly Wahabis. Because they were going back to an Islamic society and they thought this is the way to reform. The same corruption we’re talking about in Iraq. Whether it’s neocommunism or secular ideas, it’s going back to a religious state.
LT: Do you feel that this represents the majority?
RB: We don’t know. You see polls occasionally saying that more than 50 percent of Jordanians believe that Bin Laden is justified in committing suicide operations. The majority of Pakistanis, Saudis certainly, were happy about 9/11, because they feel like they’re under attack. I could be wrong, but there’s a strong anti-Western, anti-American sentiment. They think that we are trying to destroy them. And our outpost is Israel. I think it’s bizarre, in a very pragmatic sense, that America would be so strongly behind Israel. Simply in economic terms, it costs so much. I’m not just talking about direct aid, the billions we’ve given the military.
LT: So why are we supporting Israel so strongly?
RB: I just don’t know, I guess the Judeo-Christian idea. If it’s true that we have 60-90 million Evangelicals that believe that Israel has to exist at the end-times, that’s probably part of it. A part of it is guilt for the Holocaust.
LT: Jewish Israeli Zionists lobby in the US?
RB: Well, they play on courts that are already there. You’ve got Spielberg, Schindler’s List...you’ll never see a Hollywood movie that portrays the fact that Gaza has been a prison since 1967. And it is a prison. All you have to do is go there and watch people lining up trying to get into Israel—for heart operations. They can’t. They don’t have medical care. There are no modern hospitals. You can’t get a heart bypass in Gaza. And you also can’t get out. You’ve got 1.2 million people in prison, but you’d never see that reality—whether they’re terrorists or not—being portrayed that way. It’s guilt by association.
LT: You said you opposed the attack on Iraq—
RB: I oppose not being able to pay my medical bills when I’m 70 years old because all my retirement has gone into the building of the Iraqi nation. Iraq was held together by the military, the security services, which Bremer and company eliminated in April 2003. So what’s going to replace them after we’ve destroyed all those tanks?
LT: [Laughing] A lot of those tanks were already destroyed. I saw them—
RB: We were destroying them before, but they were all destroyed definitely after. There’s no armor to hold these three different peoples together who don’t really make up a nation
LT: Would 500,000 troops on the ground in Iraq at the time we invaded have helped?
RB: Yeah, they would have helped in terms of holding it together. If we had [had] an American soldier on every corner, and daily raiding every house in Anbar province, yeah...the museum probably wouldn’t have been looted. But we still would have been an occupying force of 500,000 indefinitely. And the moment we leave they’re going to be killing each other. I think even the idiots understand this.
LT: This talk about building an Iraqi security force—
RB: We’re simply arming the Shias and the Kurds, which doesn’t make for good relations with the Sunnis. They hate them. They’ve hated them since 680, since they killed the prophet’s grandchild. And we’ve just slammed that wedge back in there and made it worse.
LT: You talk of the CIA being dismantled after the Cold War, about these wedges. Fear is being spread across the land, there are terrorists under the bed, they are everywhere and coming to get us. We are fed talk of "forever wars." This feeds the Cold War mentality. It feeds the anti-terrorism system: We need to have another Patriot Act, we need to protect ourselves—like in the McCarthy era—against these people. We are locking people up in jails for no reason. There is a case to be made for all this, but do Americans really want to live like that again? Do you think we need to?
RB: No. You could solve it by changing foreign policy.
LT: And what would you envision that to be?
RB: Get out of Iraq. Any time you’re bombing Muslims around the world, it makes things worse, it’s not going to make them better. And the chances of solving your problems with Predator and Hellfire missiles are zero. Try that in a large American city. Have the police put up Predators and say, "All right, we think there’s a suspect in this building, we’re going to knock it down with a Hellfire missile," and you’ll see what you get from that. Why should it be any different for them? You’ve got to do your best to implement [UN Resolution] 242 and bring along all the Arab countries and all the Arab organizations.
LT: Iraqis tell me they hate the occupation, they hate the troops being there. I ask, "Do you want them to leave?" They say, "Well, not just yet..."
RB: Well, they know what’s going to happen.
LT: "...not until we have a security system."
RB: Which they won’t ever have. Saddam tried to create a security system, and every time someone tried to kill him or his sons, he’d take whole villages and line them up and shoot them, which kept everybody quiet for a while.
LT: But that’s based on a dictatorship. Are you saying that it’s impossible for these people to live peacefully?
RB: Yeah. Because you just have to read the Koran. Apostates are not tolerated and the Shia are apostates. They can’t join the military in Saudi Arabia, they can’t own property in a lot of cases, they’re not trusted, they’ve been removed from the oil industry, they’re not considered as humans. These people can’t live with each other.
LT: That’s not my experience on the ground. Sunni live next to Shiite, they intermarry—
RB: I know all about the tribes. In Anbar province [Sunnis] are married [to] Shia and they’ve got extensions. But the fact is, the vast majority of Shiites want the oil in Iraq, and they’re sitting on the major fields. In the [Iraqi] constitution it says, "We get the oil, Sunnis don’t." And the more instability you get, the more these people are going to fall back on these primal differences. I think it’s a wonderful, generous experiment; a lot of people believe in it in this country. They just don’t get it. It’s not going to happen. We’re not going to make a democracy in Iraq unless we stayed there a hundred years and we trained 100,000 Americans in Arabic every year to go over there and completely dismantle their society. If that’s the way people want to spend their money. Who is paying for the war? The taxes haven’t been raised. We’re borrowing money. The supplemental budget for Iraq is a hundred billion dollars.
RB: I think people ought to start telling the truth, I think the president should get up and say, "All right, we’re going to be in this for the next 50 years. The people who were supposed to retire at 60 now get to retire at 75." And then watch. And let the American people decide. I just don’t think anyone in Washington can tell the truth.
LT: Regarding the Iraqi people, do you think the troops should leave tomorrow?
RB: Probably, and let it happen. Let the divisions occur.
LT: Then what do you think would happen?
RB: There’d be a civil war.
LT: With how many different factions? I have heard that there are 20 different militias or brigades.
RB: It would make Somalia look civilized.
LT: You’re painting a total end-time scenario in terms of we’re damned if we do or if we don’t at this point.
RB: I was in Iran last spring and talked to one of the ayatollahs there. He said, "These people are wolves, are pitiless wolves"—this is the Sunni he’s referring to—"and as soon as we get an opportunity we’re going to go in and slaughter them." He said this on camera to me, an American, ex-CIA on top of it. There’s a great article by Chris Dickey [in Newsweek] about [how] the Iranians all want nuclear bombs. All of them: liberals, pro-American, everybody thinks Iran should have one. What bothers me is, the people in Washington, in the think tanks, really don’t know what is going on and are making policy.
LT: You have such an intensely dismal view of people’s ability to do anything other than what they’ve been doing.
RB: I think they have to do it on their own, at their own pace. I don’t recall anybody arriving in the United States forcing democracy on Americans, or the British, or anybody else. It’s a very racist attitude to think that it has to be done from outside.
LT: I agree, but there were plenty of people in Iraq who wanted to participate in some form of democracy. They lined up to vote.
RB: Who knows what they’re doing it for? I worked for years with those people and it’s a different society. It’s a foreign country, and if we decide to impose our values at an enormous cost, it’s an experiment doomed to failure.
LT: What you’re saying runs against my experience. I went to Iraq looking for the people hating Bush, and all I found were people who were very happy to be free, very happy to think about being able to vote. Certainly not knowing the ramifications—there wasn’t a lot of literature, and they were following—
RB: What they’re saying is, "Fine. Now let us get down and regulate things ourselves and [you] get out. You got rid of Saddam." Everybody hated Saddam, probably including his family. But to say they’re better off with car bombs going off, and no gasoline, and murder—
LT: One Christian woman—a minister in the Iraqi government—said to me, "What is wrong with your American peace-movement?" She’s 42 years old, she’s got two kids, takes them to work with her. I interviewed her both in Jordan and in the Green Zone. She had to leave Iraq in 1988 when Saddam gassed her village. She went back. She told me: "Go back and ask the people of your country why they are trying to screw this up. Weren’t you willing to die in your country for democracy?"
RB: We did it ourselves, we didn’t have a foreign power come in and impose it.
LT: There are people in Iraq who do want it, but they’re fighting against thugs, outside terrorists, former Baathists, whatever you want to call them—there are so many different groups.
RB: You stand there in a hundred years and a hundred trillion dollars, or whatever it’s going to cost—
LT: We opened up Pandora’s Box, and if we pull out—remember after the first Gulf War? We said to them, "Come. Show your faces. We’re here. And then we left. And [Saddam] mowed down 300,000. And then the left said, "Look what you did!"
RB: It’s another mistake, but that’s a different one. Morally there is no answer. If you created this problem, it’s yours. Arming the Shiite and the Kurds is not a particularly good solution. And that’s what we’re doing now. But you really have to get people in Washington to start telling the truth.
LT: How can you do that?
RB: You can’t.
LT: They’re up to their ears in oil money, both the Democrats and the Republicans. There are lobbyists. It’s connected to Osama Bin Laden, the Saudis are involved—the big secrets nobody wants to talk about. The American public is so goddamn confused as to what is going on. How come the Saudis were in the planes? How come we’re friends with them? And all of this just acts as some kind of a smoke screen that allows this to continue while people are lining their pockets with gold.
RB: Well, what they’re seeing is that it’s hopeless—"We might as well move off to a gated community. I’m going to have a separate truce here. I’m going to get enough money that I can drive around my community with my electric golf cart."
LT: Gated communities. We have private businessmen now who want to have their own space shuttles. It’s like they’re already thinking about what they can do to protect themselves against the masses that might hurtle themselves at them. Is that part of your thinking?
RB: They don’t want to sit in traffic, either. Grab what you can, and send your kids to private schools. They say, "It’s very logical, this is the best I can do." They don’t want to get involved in politics.
LT: What about solar energy, what about other alternative sources of running the world?
RB: I don’t know. The Roman Empire fell. They couldn’t deal with problems that were quite apparent to them.
LT: They had a 500-year run, too, huh?
RB: Yeah. We’re not going to have 500 years, though.