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Ex-CIA Agent Robert Baer, Inspiration for 'Syriana'


George Clooney's compelling new movie "Syriana" is about oil, the Middle East, corporate greed, oil, espionage, intrigue, oil, assassination, terrorism and--Did I mention?--oil. At the end of this movie, you want to go out and buy a hybrid car, and you also want to sit down with whomever you saw it with to try to figure out what screenwriter/director Stephen Gaghan has told interviewers is a purposely confusing narrative. "Syriana" was inspired by the book "See No Evil" by former CIA Agent Robert Baer. Bob Baer is the inspriation for George Clooney's character, CIA Agent Bob Barnes, who at one point goes to Beirut and meets with an old acquaintance to talk about a visitor from an oil-rich sheikdom.

(Soundbite of "Syriana")

Unidentified Man: He's traveling to Beirut. It's dangerous to travel. He'll disappear.

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Bob Barnes) I want you to take him from his hotel, drug him, put him in the front of a car and run a truck into it 50 miles an hour.

Unidentified Man: It's good to have you back in town, Bob.

SIEGEL: Well, when we heard that the real-life Bob Baer was back in our building, we thought we'd ask him about the movie that his writing inspired and help us sort out some CIA fact from cinematic fiction.

Welcome back to the program.

Mr. ROBERT BAER (Former CIA Officer): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: First, how big a role did you have in writing this story of "Syriana"?

Mr. BAER: Zero role. That was all done by Stephen Gaghan, who wrote "Traffic," as you know. I had more of a role in introducing him to that world. We traveled around the Middle East probably for almost two months--oil conferences. We saw the spiritual head of Hezbollah. We saw oil dealers in Nice(ph), arms dealers--everybody you can imagine, so he could pick up the voices. And then I told him a lot of stories that weren't in my book, which in one way or another found their way into the movie.

SIEGEL: OK. Let's hear from you about some things that happened in the movie and whether they're historical or plausible. Bob Barnes, the George Clooney character--we just heard him in Beirut talking with an old acquaintance, I guess a former CIA contractor. And they're talking about the abduction of this independent-minded prince from an oil-producing state of the Middle East. Plausible--such things have really happened, or a good fiction writer's conceit?

Mr. BAER: It's more than plausible. It happened to me. In 1997 when I left the agency, I resigned; showed up in Beirut, and there was a contract out on a Gulf prince. It was open, and people knew about it. He was hiding in Syria at the time. He opposed his government. He was a cousin of the emir of his government. He was a bit of a, you know, red-diaper prince. He tried a coup in 1995 and was trying again in 1997, and there was money being offered to whack this guy. So it is plausible. This is the way the Middle East works.

SIEGEL: In this case, the character whom George Clooney is talking to is a former colleague from Beirut, but now he seems to be working for either Iran or Hezbollah or both. There are such people out there, Americans who are working for Iran or Hezbollah?

Mr. BAER: There are people that are doing individual contracts in a place like Beirut, Damascus, Iraq now, where you can actually find--this is the netherworld CIA works in. Plausible, yes.

SIEGEL: He tortures George Clooney--I don't want to give away the whole movie here, but this fellow does--you know, pulls out fingernails. Accurate? Plausible?

Mr. BAER: This is a fictional story, OK? I mean, we've had Americans tortured in Beirut in the '80s and the rest by Hezbollah and Iranian agents. Bill Buckley, the chief of the station, was tortured to death. Yes, it does happen. But again, you have to remember that "Syriana"--that Stephen Gaghan has taken like real characters and fictionalized their stories, carried them out through the end, 'cause this--at the end of the day it's a thriller, a political thriller.

SIEGEL: It is.

Mr. BAER: And people are fascinated...

SIEGEL: It's a very exciting movie.

Mr. BAER: it because it sounds so real, and it sounds real because Gaghan went and talked to these people. I mean, he changed faces and names and events, but--and that's why there's such an emotional wallop at the end of it.

SIEGEL: The CIA in "Syriana," in the movie, uses what I assume is a Predator missile, a missile fired from a drone with a video image of its target. Now I've been told by people who work in national security that the CIA in particular was averse to this--they didn't like this weapon.

Mr. BAER: Oh, they are adverse to it, but remember in Yemen in November, I think, 2002--you may want to go check this--but they killed an American citizen. It was fired from a Predator in a Hellfire missile. There were six guys in a car; one of them was thought to be Qaeda and they fired a missile.


Mr. BAER: CIA fired. It happens.

SIEGEL: So the agency got over its inhibitions over this weapon.

Mr. BAER: 9/11 changed everything. I mean, you--it changed the nature of intelligence. I mean, how do we know the intelligence they're operating off of, whether it's accurate, as in the movie? Often it's not, and this is the problem with targeted killings--is you're often basing it on bad information.

SIEGEL: The biggest question I came out of the movie theater with after watching "Syriana" was: Why is it called "Syriana"?

Mr. BAER: You know, you have to go back to Sykes-Picot, where the Europeans were sitting down and redrawing the borders...

SIEGEL: This is post-World War I and...

Mr. BAER: ...and calling countries--post-World War I. Iraq is a fake country. You know, it was three provinces of the Ottoman Empire. It was, you know, melded together. It's why we're having these problems there today. And `Syriana' is a think tank term--people want to create this fake country to help our oil interests, which does, at the end of the day. And I think it's just a metaphor that the Middle East is made up of countries with false borders.

SIEGEL: But does Syriana--this is a serious question. Is Syriana the name of the country that the prince is the prince of?

Mr. BAER: No, and...

SIEGEL: No. ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. BAER: add to that confusion is intentional because the prince never mentions Syriana. No one mentions...

SIEGEL: No. No one mentions Syriana in the entire movie.

Mr. BAER: Well, that's the whole point. Have you ever heard `Syriana' before this movie?


Mr. BAER: Well, go to the think tanks. They'll tell you about it. and everybody'll have a different version of what Syriana is, and that's the whole point of the movie--is you have all these agendas running in together, running parallel, and no one knows what the guy next door's doing. ExxonMobil doesn't know precisely what our policy is in Saudi Arabia, but it has its own policy.

SIEGEL: Bob Barnes, George Clooney's character, at least inspired by you, if not based on you--I don't know what's the best adjective here--he is disowned by the CIA.

Mr. BAER: I was disowned by the CIA. In 1995 I was brought up on charges of attempting to kill Saddam Hussein. I was told not to have a lawyer, and I was--at the end of it, the FBI told me this was a capital crime and they could have brought charges against me had they wanted to. They chose not to. So Gaghan has taken this story and, of course, rejiggered it, and you do get cut loose.

SIEGEL: Did you find the--when you saw the movie, did you find the narrative confusing? Did you feel that you had to sit down and rethink...

Mr. BAER: This is the brilliance of it is I know all the stories. I know, for instance, about unitizing North Pars, you know, the North Field and South Pars. It's a famous gas field in the Gulf. I said, `How is he going to hook all these things into Kazakhstan and all this?' And I said `Damn'--in the middle, `he's doing all this on purpose. It's confusing. The guy at the Department of Justice doesn't know what's going on. That's why he can't bring indictments. The lawyer only sees a part of it--Jeffrey Wright. Clooney sees a part of it. In this whole world is what we come out with is consequences. If you sit in this movie and then you try to figure out how everybody fits together and when it--action turns, forget it. This is not "Elf II."

SIEGEL: (Laughs) Well, I'm sure people who haven't seen the movie--we've even confused them further by now. But...

Mr. BAER: That's the whole point. I mean, you had--it's a smart, smart movie and they want you to be confused, and you walk away with feeling the system's broken.

SIEGEL: Well, Robert Baer, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. BAER: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: It's Bob Baer, whose 2002 book titled "See No Evil" was the inspiration for the new film "Syriana." It's showing now in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, and it opens nationwide on Friday.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.