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ISSUE 120 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/17/2006

Baer criticizes response in Iraq

By Emelie Heltsley
News Editor
and Stephanie Soucheray
News Editor

Friday, November 17, 2006

St. Olaf Political Awareness Committee (PAC) hosted Robert Baer, an ex-CIA operative who spent over 20 years working in intelligence and whose story inspired George Clooney's Oscar-winning film "Syriana" for their fall speaker Wednesday evening in the Pause. Baer entitled his talk "Making Sense of the Middle East" and spent an hour and a half discussing the war in Iraq, American dependence on oil and answering student questions.

"I'm going to tell you the truth tonight," Baer said. "I don't talk with notes."

Baer began his talk with a short biography to explain how he ended up in the CIA. After leaving Georgetown University in 1976, he moved to San Francisco where he and a friend thought it would be "the funniest thing in the world" to apply for a job at the CIA. After filling out long applications and a psychiatric questionnaire, Baer eventually accepted a job with the CIA.

A month later, he found himself standing at the door of a C3 cargo plane getting ready to jump into a jungle holding a machine gun.

"Life is getting very strange," he remembers telling himself at that moment.

Baer began his career with the CIA in 1976, during the Cold War. "The battle lines were clearer in the Cold War, especially for the CIA," Baer said. "The CIA simply had to recruit Soviet operatives and get information about the next missile launch; it was a war where we felt our survival was at stake.

"Post-Cold War the CIA became mushy, no one knew what kind of information to collect and we had no sources," he said. "The CIA is only as good as its clandestine sources."

In his military and intelligence career, Baer has run covert operations and received career intelligence medals. At one point, he was chief of a station in Northern Iraq, ready to attack Saddam Hussein's army.

In 1995, Baer pushed for the CIA to support an Iraqi uprising that would have thrown Hussein out of power. Eventually, the CIA refused to offer support because no clear Iraqi leader was identified, though he believes that the CIA established one ground rule for themselves in Iraq in the mid-1990s. "We decided that you absolutely could not have an uprising with American troops on the ground," Baer said. "I'd like to think I have no responsibility for what's happening in Iraq today, but I suppose I do."

In the mid-1990s, Baer was involved in financing the Clinton campaign and eventually resigned from the CIA in 1997, when he wrote his first book, "See No Evil."

In 2004, he was invited to George Clooney's house to discuss a possible movie based on his story. Baer remembers seeing girls hanging from trees outside Clooney's house, hoping to get a view of the Hollywood star.

"They were like Christmas ornaments," Baer said about the obsessed fans hanging from tree branches.

At this moment in his talk, Baer switched gears, telling his audience that the current Middle East situation is not a happy story.

"The Iraq war is the biggest folly in American history," Baer said.

Baer sees the Vietnam War differently, because everyone then was convinced that a nuclear exchange would happen between America and the Soviet Union. He called his missions during the Vietnam War "very satisfying" because they were "clear-cut missions."

Iraq, however, is different.

"We've seen what the administration will do to undercut the Constitution," Baer said, criticizing the current use of wire and phone taps. During his time in the CIA, Baer argued that there was always justification for intelligence measures taken.

He also harshly criticized the Guantanamo and Abu Guraib events.

"There is no excuse for torture or abusive behavior," he said, saying that people under torture will say anything, leading to misunderstood situations and false leads.

Baer then gave the audience a quick review of Middle East tensions, showing the deep fissures that are rampant through the region as well as the complicated relationships involved. After a bleak portrayal of the situation, Baer asked how things would work out.

"We can't win in Iraq," he said. "We can't put Humpty Dumpty back together again."

In a private interview, Baer shared similar sentiments with reporters.

"The U.S. military can only be on the ground in Iraq as peacekeepers – not peacemakers," he said, asking how sending American troops into Iraq could help the situation.

After spending 25 years in the Middle East, Baer criticized the current administration for tackling the conflict in the wrong way.

"My only message is that we can't solve it as Americans," he said, calling the region "xenophobic" and "wounded."

Baer hopes that the recent Democratic election victory will start moving the country in the right direction, namely by drawing more attention to alternative energy sources. He wishes that the $2 billion spent in Iraq already could have been spent on researching alternative fuel sources.

"The answer is in alternative energy," he said. "The sooner we do this the better."

Baer criticized post-Sept. 11 security measures, stating that America is no more protected than before the attacks.

"I think the end of the Cold War was the decline in security," he said. "This is a really scary time."

Baer then answered questions from the audience, addressing issues such as changes in the CIA, connections between Saddam Hussein and Sept. 11, Afghanistan and his prediction for the Middle East.

“The biggest mistake you could make is to try to predict what will happen in the Middle East," Baer said, though stating his belief that a civil war in Iraq was inevitable.

"The American public is more interested in narratives than truth," Baer said, both in private interviews and in his talk. In his message, he criticized the Bush administration for believing blind reporting for the sole purpose of starting a war with Iraq.

"The war was based on a lie, and now it's time to get over the lies," he said.

Baer sees the recent elections as a protest vote for how the administration has handled the Iraq situation.

"Americans won’t get angry with Iraq until other countries stop footing the bill and we have to shut down schools and leave roads unpaved to fund the war," Baer said in his private interview.





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