Sunday, August 07, 2011

Five best books about being a spy

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.

From his dialogue with Daisy Banks at The Browser about books on being a spy:
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.
Read about another book Baer tagged.

--Marshal Zeringue