The CIA and the Middle East

America’s Great Game: The C.I.A. and U.S. Middle East Foreign Policy

This is a review of a public forum presented by the Levantine Cultural Center on the evening of Thursday, March 6, 2014, at the Westwood Hills Congregational Church in Los Angeles. The participants were intelligence historian Hugh Wilford, former CIA case manager Robert Baer, and moderator Robert Scheer, a longtime journalist and commentator on KCRW's Left, Right and Center. I curated the program, with support from KPFK 90.7 FM and LA Jews for Peace. For a list of upcoming Levantine programs, click here.

Hugh Wilford, Robert Scheer, Robert Baer (photos by Erick Almalina)

Hugh Wilford, Robert Scheer, Robert Baer (photos by Erick Almalina)

By Jordan Elgrably

THE CIA HAS ENTERED OUR POPULAR IMAGINATION as a mysterious agency operating out of Langley, Virginia that does the work of the American empire, foiling our perceived enemies abroad and accomplishing the tasks that suit particular big business interests, whether in the Middle East, Asia, South America or Europe, where for decades America's greatest adversary was the Soviet Union (at one time the CIA devoted 60% of its budget to combatting the Soviets).

Just this past year, as journalist and Truthdig editor-in-chief Robert Scheer pointed out, 60 years after the MI6-CIA engineered coup of Iran's democratically-elected Mohammad Mossadegh, the CIA released documents that admitted its responsibility for meddling in Iran's internal affairs. The CIA noted: "[T]he military coup that overthrew Mossadegh and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy." It was made clear that U.S. motivations were almost entirely economic.

But who are the American recruits who do our government's bidding, and what do they care about? Why is the CIA so feared and hated throughout the Middle East and North Africa?

Robert Baer

Robert Baer

Author and former CIA case manager Robert Baer is an Arabic- and Persian speaking American who spent 21 years as a CIA employee, mostly in the Middle East. A Los Angeles native, he graduated from Georgetown University and did graduate work at UC Berkeley, where he applied to the CIA's Directorate of Operations. Baer's books See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil were the basis for the 2005 Academy Award-winning motion picture Syriana. The film's character Bob Barnes (played by George Clooney) is loosely based on Baer. Baer's most recent books are The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower and The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story.

He also published a novel, Blow the House Down. At one point during the evening, Baer quipped, "All novels are about good intentions."

I WAS INITIALLY INSPIRED TO CURATE THIS PROGRAM after learning of a new book by Cal State Long Beach professor Hugh Wilford, a British intelligence historian who researched the early years of the CIA, when Kermit "Kim" Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, was an operative, and the agency was overrun with zealots who were, Wilford found, well-trained and sympathetic Arabists

Wilford's book is America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East.

  Books by Wilford, Baer and Scheer (available at the Levantine Cultural Center bookstore, call 310.657.5511).

  Books by Wilford, Baer and Scheer (available at the Levantine Cultural Center bookstore, call 310.657.5511).

Considering that Israel has seemed to be America's best friend in the Middle East for decades, it would not have ever occurred to me that the CIA once had high-level operatives who were pro-Arab. Yet Wilford found in his research that indeed, American agents like Roosevelt and Miles Copeland (father of the former Police drummer Stuart Copeland) were fascinated with the British empire and the exotic Middle East; they were orientalists who read Rudyard Kipling and T.E. Lawrence and wanted to chase adventure as spies doing good work for their country. They learned Arabic and created a group called American Friends of the Middle East—a name far more benevolent than the activities of that group suggest (if you want to know the details, read Wilford's book).

But after Wilford painted a somewhat rosy picture of a band of American elite recruits making mischief in places where, as Robert Baer suggested, we perhaps had no business, moderator Robert Scheer asked repeatedly why it seemed that CIA actions and predictions had so often been wrong, as if the agents were "stupid" despite appearing to be quite educated. Robert Baer insisted that frequently the raw intel produced by agents on the ground was good—that the people with expertise had good sources, were knowledgeable and were telling it like it is, but up the chain of command their superiors didn't want to hear it, just didn't want to know the truth.

Anyone remember the case of WMDs in Iraq, when the White House clearly had an agenda and seemed to be ignoring CIA reports? This disinformation had two components: weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi plans for terrorism against the US with sleeper cells.  The first has been debunked and the second has been ignored, even though the US went through massive quantities of Iraqi government and Baath party documents, without any evidence of Iraqi plans or preparations to attack the United States.

As Baer insisted more than once during the forum, often it was a matter of bureaucrats at the CIA getting paid every two weeks who want to keep their jobs and get promotions. They don't want to rock the boat. From whom then are they taking their orders?

The State Department and the White House, said Baer.*

In the case of Iraq, it would appear that CIA agents functioned as minions of George W. Bush White House foreign policy.

So much for the CIA being a rogue agency. In fact, Baer made it sound as if Langley runs a practically bumbling operation half the time, which completely belies the facts when you look where CIA covert actions have been effective (coups engineered in Iran, Chile, Guatemala and elsewhere). But Baer disparaged covert operations, saying that they were generally a path downhill in your career, that the good agents do not want to go out on covert ops.

(While Baer said many in the CIA disdained the failed Bay of Pigs operation under Kennedy, he placed the blame on the Kennedy Administration, despite the fact that the CIA cooked up the plan during the previous administration, under Eisenhower.)

So how did the early CIA go from empathizing with the Arab people to becoming so hated for its obvious meddling? After all, Kim Roosevelt et al were friendly with and supported Egypt's beloved Gamal Abdel Nasser.

In reality CIA Arabists were sympathetic to Arab elites, most of whom were corrupt autocrats.  And while they may have seemed supportive of the pan-Arab nationalism that Nasser championed, the CIA also backed the Muslim Brotherhood to foil Nasser.

The consensus, emphasized by Baer, was that American agents and case managers were far more likely to have relationships with those at the top, while ignoring the needs of the masses.

Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer had interviewed Kermit Roosevelt about his years in the CIA in 1978, when the latter was aging and bedridden. He described Roosevelt as a man of good cheer who thought the CIA worked with the best intentions in mind. But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What happens when our intel is wrong, when the CIA bungles the job? You have the debacle that Iraq became; you have an agency that completely failed to protect the country from the events of 9/11—and one that did not predict the Arab Spring. As Robert Baer frankly admitted, "I didn't understand [what was really going on in] Iraq, I still don't."

Regarding the events of 9/11, Baer and Scheer concurred that we still don't know the truth. The latter belittled the 9/11 Commission Report, saying it was as flawed as the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Baer wondered how on earth the 15 Saudis got into the U.S. in the first place. He suggested that they were "handled" by operatives but did not explain further.

A vigorous question and answer session ensued after Wilford, Baer and Scheer talked amongst themselves on stage, at the Westwood Hills church. People seemed to want to like Robert Baer; I was surprised he did not face more hostility, as many of those who spoke out were clearly critical of the CIA.

Said Dick Platkin, an activist with LA Jews for Peace, "I enjoyed the forum but I was bothered by the undertone that we need smart CIA agents instead of stupid ones who are limited by Washington politicians. I think smart ones could be far worse in extending the reach and effectiveness of the US empire."

My one question concerned Israel's attack on the USS Liberty, an intelligence-gathering ship stationed off the coast of Israel in 1967 that took fire from both the Israeli Air Force and Israeli Navy. During prolonged bombing and strafing, more than 30 American servicemen were killed. Clearly this was an act of war, yet Israel issued an apology, insisting they had mistaken the ship for an Egyptian vessel—this despite the fact that the Liberty was flying the American flag.

While Baer was critical of Israel's actions and lamented the deaths of our personnel, he was not able to explain the policy decisions that led to the Johnson Administration accepting Israel's apology. Johnson would brush the incident under the rug, and the U.S. has hardly protested any of Israel's military actions in the Middle East since that time.

If you want to understand the CIA, it will certainly help to read the works of Wilford and Baer, but you will not find all the answers to the U.S.-MiddleEast conundrum. And as Baer admitted to me privately at the end of the night, "I don't have any answers." More likely, his former employers will not permit him to speak freely, except to share the most innocuous or entertaining information. Unless and until we demand to know more, we shall continue to be enthralled at the movies by the CIA's mysterious operatives, but will not learn what they do in our name.

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* More likely the tail is wagging the dog—the CIA does the dirty work for U.S. big business interests, and therefore the State Department and the White House are in the CIA's thrall.

Jordan Elgrably, a writer in Los Angeles, is the director of the Levantine Cultural Center. Link