Ex-CIA operative Robert Baer. (photo: Channel 4 London)
Former CIA officer Robert Baer never misses an opportunity. A 21-year veteran of clandestine operations in the Middle East and Soviet Central Asia, Baer is an engaging rogue who has become a man of letters. His books "See No Evil" and "Sleeping with the Devil" became the basis of the Oscar-winning "Syriana," and he widely offers his thoughts as intelligence correspondent for Time and in other publications.
Does Baer express only his own well-considered opinions? Or, like so many in his shadowy world, is he still spreading lies and half-truths on behalf his former employers at Langley?
His latest target is Edward Snowden, the top-secret techie who admits leaking the documents showing that his former employer, the National Security Agency, systematically tracks millions of U.S telephone calls and Internet communications. Snowden was last seen in Hong Kong, hoping, he says, to find political asylum either there or in Iceland.
"China could be behind NSA leaks," screams the Newsmax headline on Baer. "On the face of it, it looks like it's under some sort of Chinese control," Baer said, especially with U.S. president Barack Obama meeting Chinese president Xi Jinping... "You have to ask what's going on? I mean, China is not a friendly country, and every aspect of that country is controlled."
Snowden could have fled to Sweden, Baer suggests helpfully. "And if he really wanted to make a statement, he should have done it on Capitol Hill."
The timing seemed to be "a pointed affront to the United States," Baer concludes. If Obama tries to bring up any complaints of China hacking into U.S. defense contractors' computer system, the Chinese president can just respond that the United States is doing the same thing.
"I can see the Chinese doing that," says Baer.
All vintage Robert Baer, and a throwback to the propaganda daze of the Cold War. Note how completely he shifts attention away from the massive U.S. surveillance that Snowden has revealed, offering only spy-fi speculation without any supporting evidence. He also adds an ominous note.
"We'll never get him from China. There's not a chance. He'll disappear there," says Baer. "He won't be able to go anywhere else, but if, in fact, the Chinese had a hand in this ... they're not about to send him to The United States." So, if Snowden is "disappeared," as he himself warned could happen, Baer wants us to blame the Chinese and not his fellow-American masters of rendition.
Significantly, Baer has taken similar shots at another major whistleblower. Back in November 2010, in Foreign Policy magazine, he savaged the late Philip Agee, a former operations officer who had exposed the CIA in 1975, just before Baer went to his first interview to become an agency analyst. Instead, the recruiter tempted Baer with a copy of Agee's best-selling memoir, "Inside the Company: CIA Diary."
"Read this," said the recruiter, "and tell me whether you might be interested in operations."
The young applicant could not believe what the recruiter handed him. In Baer's words, the book "portrayed the CIA as an evil, secret society that pulled strings around the world, corrupting otherwise honest officials and overthrowing democratically elected governments. Agee described in detail how the CIA propped up Latin American juntas and corrupt regimes around the world."
"And worse," wrote Baer, "Agee named names -- confidential sources and names of operatives -- people who are supposed to work outside the public spotlight their entire lives."
Rather than being repulsed, Baer admits becoming fascinated that "there really might be such a thing as a secret society, one that channeled the currents of history" like some modern-day Knights Templar. Seduced, in part by Agee's revelations, he happily joined the ranks of the secret elite.
Flash forward to the pages of Foreign Policy, which incidentally has just published a ringing defense of the NSA's massive surveillance and data mining. In his 2010 story, Baer goes after his seducer in a feature article called "Havana's Man in Havana."
"The simple truth is that Agee was a fraud. No, let me be exact: He was a paid traitor. As the U.S. government would come to learn, Cuban intelligence was behind Agee's campaign against the CIA -- and it paid him well for his work. Agee's claims of being driven by conviction and ideology were lies."
In contrast to his attack on Snowden, Baer pretends to offer evidence against Agee, all of it from the agency itself. But, hoping to help round out an instructive slice of history, I felt compelled to jump in and offer some first-hand evidence of my own.