The Baer Facts: Not “by the book”, buy the book!

Former CIA operations officer Robert Baer is in the headlines–again. He’s predicting an Israeli attack on Iran–again. And he’s promoting one of his books–again.

As reported last Friday in the Huffington Post by M.J. Rosenberg, Robert Baer, a former CIA operations officer (1976-97), told radio talk show host Ian Masters on July 12:

There is almost “near certainty” that [Israeli Prime Minister Bernjamin] Netanyahu is “planning an attack [on Iran] … and it will probably be in September before the vote on a Palestinian state. And he’s also hoping to draw the United States into the conflict…”

Baer is now expressing astonishment that anyone could have construed his comments as predicting an Israeli strike against Iran. In Time Magazine today, Baer offers his version of the unfolding of events since the  radio interview was picked up and publicized:

Last week, my friend Ian Masters, who hosts the Los Angeles talk-show Background Briefing, called me up to talk about the Arab spring, and especially what would happen if Israel were to attack Iran. He was struck by the comments of recently retired Mossad chief Meir Dagan, saying that an increasingly paranoid and isolated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was considering launching a reckless attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and doing that soon… I noted there have been other recently retired senior Israeli security officials who’d said much the same thing, including the well-respected chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi.

Then “as these things go on radio, fact quickly turned to speculation,” Baer explains:

Warming to the subject, I chattered on about how I’d heard there was a “warning order” at the Pentagon to prepare for a conflict with Iran. I was about to add that that this was not unusual; there are warning orders all the time, and it could have nothing to do with Israeli or anything it was or wasn’t planning for Iran. (Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, after all, is accusing Iran of being behind the sharp uptick in deadly attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.) But time was short, and the host needed to finish up for the next guest.

According to Baer, the easygoing banter had no reliable basis in fact, and was purely speculative:

This was a wide-ranging speculative conversation on a local radio station, two like minds kibitzing, as media pundits so often do, with no inside information to back our interpretations of the significance of the flood of former senior Israeli security officials warning that Netanyahu is crazy and likely to do something rash. “If I was forced to bet,” I ventured, “I’d say we’re going to have some sort of conflict in the next couple of months, unless this is all just a masterful bluff — which I can’t believe the Iranians would succumb to — I think the chances of it being a bluff are remote.” Not exactly claiming to know any more than any other tea-leaf reader.

And when Masters asked me when I thought this hypothetical attack might hypothetically occur, I blithely suggested September. I was only adding two plus two: a September attack would allow Netanyahu to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and wreck plans for a U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood, which is slated for September. I would have added that in the Middle East, two plus two rarely adds up to four. But I was definitely out of time.

Baer insists  his offhand remarks not only were taken out of context, they were disseminated as though he were “some sort of unimpeachable authority, talking with the certainly of an insider looped into the plans and intentions of the key decision-makers.”

…what I’d said was a tedious rehash of various media reports. I would have forgotten it altogether were it not for the blogosphere’s version of a Pacific hurricane. I don’t know where it started, but soon the choice bits of our conversation were being rebroadcast as a danger signal flashing bright red: “Former CIA Official: Israel Will Bomb Iran in September,” read the headline in the Huffington Post.

This was followed by hate mail, accusations that he had “gone rogue” and become “a loose cannon,” and a tweet by former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley  that Baer didn’t know what he was talking about:

Crowley is right about me speculating about things I don’t know a lot about. (Isn’t that what commentators do more often than not?) … I wondered why Crowley and everyone else didn’t notice I hadn’t drawn a government check in more than 12 years, and therefore wasn’t bringing any inside knowledge to the subject. And I’d certainly never claimed a back-door access to Netanyahu’s inner circle that would give me any privileged knowledge about a planned attack.

But Baer has apparently staked his entire post-CIA career on being taken for an expert on matters about which, he now confesses, he doesn’t know very much. Baer’s claim that he doesn’t promote himself as an expert with inside knowledge or privileged access, however, rings hollow.

After leaving the CIA in 1997 after two decades as an operative in India, North Africa, Central Asia, Bosnia, Lebanon and Northern Iraq, Baer’s first literary venture was his memoir  See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, published in January 2002.  The book was generally well received. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Baer  proffered a plausible explanation, based on personal experience, of how and why the U.S. government could have allowed such a catastrophic attack to take place on U.S. soil.  The book won praise from New Yorker investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who wrote its Foreword and gave See No Evil his endorsement with the review quote, “Robert Baer was considered perhaps the best on-the-ground field officer in the Middle East.”

Saudi Arabia was the subject of Baer’s second book,  Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, published in July 2003. Baer then tried his hand at writing a novel, Blow the House Down (2006), a supposedly fictional “alternative account” of how the events of 9/11 had transpired, with Iranian involvement as its major premise.

“The scenario that he sets forth reads in these pages like an alarming hodgepodge of the plausible, the speculative and the absurd,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in an acerbic New York Times book review. “…(I)f Mr. Baer’s intention in his new novel is to goad readers into a serious consideration of Iran’s possible terrorist connections (a timely subject, given current worries about Iran’s nuclear program), he fails in this mission by cavalierly mixing fact and fiction, the credible and the preposterous.”

While promoting the novel, Baer  hinted that his “alarming hodgepodge” of speculations about Iran ought  to be taken more seriously than those of a thriller novelist. Baer told Seymour Hersh (New Yorker, April 17, 2006) that Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guard colleagues in the Iranian government “are capable of making a bomb, hiding it, and launching it at Israel. They’re apocalyptic Shiites. If you’re sitting in Tel Aviv and you believe they’ve got nukes and missiles—you’ve got to take them out. These guys are nuts, and there’s no reason to back off.”

Baer apparently concluded that mixing the plausible and the speculative with the absurd would be more easily  tolerated in pseudo-punditry than in fiction. In September 2008,  The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower, Baer’s fifth book, was published. Baer outlined three policy options the U.S. has for dealing with Iran” 1) permanently stationing U.S. troops in Iraq; 2) instigating a Shia-Sunni civil war; or 3) negotiating with Iran: “(T)reat it like the power it has become, and see what it has to offer.” Baer himself recommended the third strategy. While not an unreasonable approach, it contrasted sharply with other assessments Baer was offering about Iran.

An  op ed piece for the New York Daily News,  “Bet on Israel Bombing Iran” (Sept. 27), 2008,  offers an interesting parallel to the current kerfuffle. Baer wrote, “What many Americans miss is that Iran is a threat to Israel’s very existence, not an imagined danger used by politicians for political advantage. Every Israeli city is within range of Iranian/Hezbollah rockets. To make matters worse, since the July 2006 34-day war, Hezbollah may have as much as trebled the number of rockets it has targeted on Israel.”

Three weeks later, a promotional blurb for  lecture by  Baer with the title “Iran’s Grip on America’s Future,” for the Commonwealth Club of California on Nov. 5, 2008, breathlessly hyped the event:

Don’t miss this opportunity to hear from and meet the man who was the basis of George Clooney’s character in “Syriana” — and find out why reality is even more riveting than film. Considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Middle East, Baer will explore the gap of information between what is going on in Iran and what Americans know. Bear [sic] visited Iran to interview suicide bombers [sic], a grand ayatollah, the hard-line chief of staff of Iran’s military forces and the terrorist chief of Hezbollah. Baer will discuss how and why Iran will control the most vital oil and gas trade routes, how it became a hero to the Palestinian Sunnis, and how it plans to seize oil from the Persian Gulf.

Yet in an Inter Press Service interview in Jan. 2009, Baer told Omid Memarian that  an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities was “totally out of  the question.” Commenting on a New York Times report that US President George W. Bush had vetoed such an attack despite the urging of Israeli leaders to launch one, Baer emphasized the futility of a military approach to resolving the clashes of interest between the U.S. and Iran:

We could bomb Tehran, but what does that get you? Nothing…You can bomb all military bases in Iran over a period of two weeks, but Iran is still there – it still has the ability to project power, project its will and maybe even come out of that type of conflict even stronger.

Baer is currently promoting his sixth  book, The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story, published earlier this year, and co-authored with his wife Dayna. The couple met in Sarajevo, while both working for the CIA and married to other spouses.  In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross on NPR back in March, Baer  described writing the book as a “purgative.” (Apparently the first five books hadn’t done the job.)

After Baer said that he and the U.S. intelligence community had been taken by surprise by the “Arab spring,” Gross asked him,  “So, do you expect you’re going to be surprised by Iran?” Baer responded, “I think now the street rising in Tehran is a neocon fantasy. I talked to people com[ng out] of Tehran, it’s not quite as bad as the exiles say. Yes, the regime has repressed the street and this Green Revolution, but I think what we’re going to see in Iran is a much more stable state…”

Exactly what that might mean for Iran’s future wasn’t at all clear, but then again, as we’ve just found out in Time today, Baer really doesn’t know what he’s talking about anyway. He is, however, selling his books.

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Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

3 Comments

  1. A superb article! Marsha Cohen once again proves her consummate skill at meticulous analysis in deconstructing the statements of “commentators” like Robert Baer. Now that he has retired from the CIA, he is free to speculate, project, outright guess and construct fiction about matters of serious importance. It would make little difference what he says about Iran, except that there are people out there who are ideologically rabid to prove that Iran needs to be destroyed. Idle speculation on Iran’s intentions “from a former CIA operative” throws gasoline on the fires of those who don’t care about facts–they just want to bomb bomb bomb Iran. Alas, those of us who are serious analysts must deal with actual facts as part of our professional responsibility. However, our more sober opinions are ignored by Terry Gross and her ilk.

  2. It’s about selling books, of course. As usual a very well-written piece. And it made my day to see the word “kerfuffle” in print.

  3. Washington destroys the reasoning of every one who enters it. His association with the CIA makes him no better or worse informed than any of us. Soldiers seldom have much perspective on what they do, they are specifically kept ignorant, on a “need to know basis.”

    One glowing example is Robin Wright. She was an astute reporter and observer of the Middle East. Now that she’s been at Carnegie for more than 6 months, her narratives have all been refracted through the Washington lens. She said on Diane Rehm the other day that Syria was the most brutal Arab regime. I called, but couldn’t get on air to correct her. The news that Bahrain, home of the US 5th fleet had just that weekend razed several Shia Mosques.

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