Robert Baer, a former Central Intelligence Agency operative who was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal, has a new book out, The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins (Blue Rider Press). His previous book, See No Evil, was adapted for the screen in 2005, and George Clooney won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for portraying Baer.
Since leaving the CIA Baer has become an outspoken commentator on intelligence-related matters in various venues, including CNN as its national security affairs analyst. The prescient Baer spoke with The Progressive on Dec. 18, the same day WikiLeaks disclosed a secret CIA 2009 counterinsurgency report assessing the effectiveness of “High-Value Targeting”––an Orwellian euphemism for assassination.
In this interview, Baer candidly discusses the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report, drones, Cuba, SONY, the CIA’s Hollywood influence, and his new book.
Q: What is the main thesis of The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins?
Robert Baer: Assassination doesn’t work, generally. I approached it from the premise that had we assassinated Hitler in 1933 we would have saved lives and destruction. Probably we would have, but in general assassination doesn’t turn out to be a way to avoid war. I take my own experience and other assassinations through history and get a lot into the drone program, which doesn’t work, as well. It’s clear to me, with the massacre at this Pakistani school [at Peshawar]; the CIA in a sense had a role in that, because the two predecessors of the man [Maulana Fazlullah, AKA “Mullah Radio”] who ordered that were both killed by drones.
Q: Considering the Church Committee CIA hearings of the 1970s and now the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on CIA torture, how can we trust U.S. intelligence and policymakers who act as judge, jury and executioner?
Baer: I don’t trust American intelligence. You look at the torture report from the Senate: People inside the CIA are saying that it doesn’t work, and we’re getting the information not from torture, but simply from questioning people.
The effectiveness of the program was exaggerated in the Senate, House and White House, as well, so as an organization I don’t think you should trust the CIA on this. And when [CIA Director John] Brennan comes out and gives that lukewarm endorsement of torture it told me the whole story––he didn’t flat-out say it saved lives. That’s how it was presented around [Washington].
And I don’t trust them on drones. When they say it’s broken the back of Al-Qaeda, I really doubt that. We’ve probably sown chaos with drones, killed lots of innocent people. But we certainly didn’t bring an end to war. The intent of assassination is to avoid war and preserve force, neither of which we have done. We are deeper into the Middle East than when we started.
You also have to look at Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which didn’t exist and were the pretext for going to war, or the claim that there was a relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, which there clearly wasn’t. So what’s happened is that the CIA has been turned into a propaganda arm of whatever administration happens to be in, whether it’s Barack Obama or George Bush.
So no, you can’t trust it. I read between the lines in all this torture reporting. They simply made an Orwellian case for this bullshit and people are lying. I truly believe that if torture had worked and there was a case to be made for it, we would see that on the front pages of the American press. You look at the New York Times, [Douglas] Jehl wrote up this bullshit in the mid-2000s that this works. Or Ron Kessler, who’s named in the Senate Report and made things up on behalf of the CIA––they’re more than willing to put this stuff out to make a case for a failed policy. What they can’t admit is that once it failed they needed to change tracks, because that’s the way bureaucracies are.
My take on the torture thing and even drones is: If we’re going to get into assassination and torture, the second question is the morality, but the first is the effectiveness of it. I know many don’t look at it that way but if you approach it and say, “Is it effective?” then we can ask ourselves whether it’s justified morally.
I go back to Brennan’s speech and the [former CIA Director Leon] Panetta review, which is not declassified, tells us that it doesn’t work. And I’m always ready to have somebody prove me wrong, but someone’s got to make the case that it saved lives and it wasn’t just fishing expeditions done by contractors, who made a fortune.
Q: Do you think more revelations are coming?
Baer: I think there’s probably worse in the sense that sadists and psychopaths are going to be drawn into things like this . . . Yeah, I think there’s going to be more out there. At the same time, it was a failed policy––and the CIA doesn’t make policy. If the administration didn’t know things were going badly, it should have asked and so should have the Senate. Why did it take twelve, thirteen years to get this stuff out, something that didn’t work?
Look at it this way: The North Koreans have labeled Sony Pictures as a terrorist organization. So why can’t they just take a Sony executive, wherever he may be traveling, render him to North Korea and torture him?
Q: Do you feel the drone program is counterproductive as a tool for fighting terrorism?
Baer: I look at this in simplistic terms. Since killing Bin Laden and the main leadership of Al Qaeda, we’re getting ISIS in return, which is an Islamic state, [that is] just as violent and going to be as disruptive and kill many more people than Bin Laden did.
There’s no evidence that drones have saved American lives. My suspicion is that drone strikes are creating more anger and chaos and loss of life––maybe not American––than if there weren’t drone strikes.
Q: In The Perfect Kill you write that [Lebanese assassin] Hajj Radwan wanted to “driv[e] the odious foreign invader from his land.” As an expert in the region, do you think non-intervention by Washington and Western powers in the Middle East and Muslim nations would be more effective?
Baer: Oh, absolutely. Our armed presence in the Middle East hasn’t made us safer. It’s our armed presence in the Middle East that has led to 9/11. When we get involved in the Middle East we always make things worse. . . On 9/11 Sweden wasn’t attacked, we were, because we intervened. Our intervention in Iraq and Syria is making Israel less safe.
Q: What do you think of Lyndon B. Johnson’s description of the CIA as “Murder Incorporated”?
Baer: The CIA is an incompetent bureaucracy, generally. You look at all the Castro attempts, all sort of silly, you look at the Bay of Pigs, which is silly. Finally, we’re getting out of the dumb Cuban thing: It’s great, we’re undercutting the Russians in Cuba.
Q: The worst recent human rights violations in Cuba have probably taken place at Guantanamo.
Baer: Yeah, and [Obama] won’t say that. Come on, it’s just craziness, jingoism, American exceptionalism. It’s not true anymore. I mean, I think we’re an exceptional country but we keep on going astray from our Jeffersonian ideals. We’re not paying attention to them.
Q: Do you think that the current crop of espionage-related productions, such as Agents of S.H.I.E.LD. and so on, have the CIA’s hand behind the scenes to use Hollywood to spruce up its image at a time when it’s besieged by lots of bad publicity?
Baer: Yeah. Well, look at Zero Dark Thirty, where they made a case that torture works. That played right into this whole idea that we got Bin Laden through torture.
Q: What’s interesting is that Zero Dark Thirty was allowed to be released [in 2012] at the same time that the Senate Report on CIA torture was stifled and prevented from public release. Popular entertainment was allowed to go without rebuttal.
Baer: It’s war propaganda. What do you think American Sniper is going to be or [Navy SEAL Marcus] Luttrell’s movie, Lone Survivor? . . . The CIA always has a Hollywood guy.
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell has interviewed many artists, writers, and Hollywood producers for The Progressive, including Oliver Stone, Costa-Gavras, Ken Burns, Danny Glover, Tom Morello, Ed Asner, W.S. Merwin, Cenk Uygur, Margarethe von Trotta, Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Peña for his review of “Cesar Chavez” in the April 2014 issue. The new book Rampell co-authored is The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.