Can I make an appointment with a CIA agent?

Ex-secret agent Robert Baer on his work in George Clooney's new film

Robert Baer has worked as the CIA's chief of operations in Northern Iraq, Rabat, Beirut and New Delhi. He worked with agents who were supposed to infiltrate Hezbollah and Al Qaeda. He is fluent in Arabic, Farsi, French and German. Since his bestseller "The Decline of the CIA", Baer has been regarded as a secret service and Middle East expert. He accompanied the research on the political thriller "Syriana" by George Clooney, who played an aging CIA agent in it. Hanns-Georg Rodek spoke to Robert Baer.

DIE WELT: Describe the everyday life of an agent in Beirut in 1983.

Robert Baer: We operated from various agents' apartments across the city. I slept in a different safe house practically every night. Each apartment was fully equipped with a washing machine, slingshot, weapons, communications. The next morning I did what had to be done: writing reports, doing laundry. Sometimes I didn't go to the office until 1 p.m. I also worked as a taxi driver. It was about being completely immersed in life.

DIE WELT: And to stay alive.

Baer: Hence the constant change of accommodation and the irregular times. One could not fall into a predictable behavior pattern. That included never making an appointment over the phone. I lost two bosses in Beirut, one in a bomb attack, the other was tortured to death.

DIE WELT: Your skin color and accent didn't rule you out?

Baer: Not at all. There were also American members in Hezbollah. These were US citizens of Arab origin from Detroit who spoke in American English to American hostages during their captivity.

DIE WELT: How do you make contact with these groups?

Baer: As an agent, I don't go to a mosque and shout, "Hey, I want to go to Hezbollah!" It's only like this in Hollywood. You have to find a Lebanese man who already works for Hezbollah.

DIE WELT: What incentive do you offer the middleman?

Baer: In the Middle East, the incentive is often money. Sometimes it's a thirst for revenge, sometimes it's ideology. Or you approach a minority who hates the ruling regime.

DIE WELT: At the beginning of "Syriana" George Clooney poses as an arms dealer and sells rockets to Arabs. A few seconds later you can see an explosion. Is this hollywood or real?

Baer: We have always carried out acts of sabotage, whether against weapons or communication systems. Prepared weapons are smuggled into the market in the hope that the enemy will buy them. A trick as old as the war. Do you remember the corpse with the wrong war plans that the British washed up on the beach near Lisbon during World War II so that the Germans could find the plans?

DIE WELT: Only the corpse of a man who was already dead was used. At Clooney, someone pulls the remote shutter release. Did you do that too?

Baer: Oh yes, we did that kind of thing all the time. There are more subtle ways to sabotage weapons, but the film had to show the effect immediately. Timing the missiles ten hours later would not have had the same effect.

DIE WELT: But the scene is realistic, isn't it?

Baer: It's realistic.

DIE WELT: After September 11th, it was claimed that one of the reasons why the attacks could not be prevented was the withdrawal of the US secret services from on-site reconnaissance in favor of electronic surveillance ...

Baer: That is a simplification. Two Arabs already charged with terrorism came to California with the knowledge of the CIA. A service cannot have much better information! But he didn't forward it to the FBI because there was no authority to do so! The CIA knew of phone calls to these two in San Diego from a terrorist apartment in Yemen. All they had to do was check their finances carefully and run into the conspiracy. It was sheer inability.

DIE WELT: So the existing safety net could have prevented the attacks?

Baer: Of course, if it weren't for idiots at the key points. And if I hear that one should have had a spy among the 19 assassins! This is Hollywood thinking. These people are convicts and they won't sell themselves to the CIA or the BND for any price.

DIE WELT: What could underwriters have contributed anyway?

Baer: It would have been nice to have someone around Bin Laden. Then one would have known that his relationship with Al Zawahiri was closer than expected. Or you could have had someone in the mosques in Saudi Arabia, where many assassins have been recruited. Someone must have recruited the 15 Saudis, someone must have got tickets and passports. We don't know anything about that to this day. What is the US government doing instead? It dismantles civil rights, flies suspects for questioning in dictatorships, and even interrogates them with dubious methods. What is the result? Absolutely nothing.

DIE WELT: Now the conspiracy theories on 9/11 are blossoming ...

Baer: They're crazy. It was inability, nothing else.

DIE WELT: But you were also part of this system for 21 years.

Baer: I made a lot of mistakes too. Perhaps I, too, would have contributed to the mistakes that led to 9/11. But a more sensible system would have noticed my mistakes and those of the others. One more thing: After these attacks, anyone who could have prevented them and did not prevent them was awarded: with money, a medal or a promotion. Now they are writing books about what a good job they have done. This is insane.