ANNOUNCER: Washington calling Counter Spy... Washington calling Counter Spy...
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The CIA was created in 1947 to conduct secret operations for the United States. After half a century of interventions and overthrows, assassinations and now, it seems, incompetence, "the Company," as it's sometimes called, is in particularly bad odor these days. For most of its existence, the CIA kept mum on its unsavory rep in the media. Then in 1996 a veteran agent named Chase Brandon was appointed liaison to Hollywood, and employing superb tradecraft, he made the agency a marquee item. So far, 3 new TV series have showcased the CIA and many, many movies including this season's The Sum of All Fears starring Ben Affleck. Robert Baer was a CIA case officer from 1976 to '97. He's also the author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism. So Bob, the FBI infiltrated Hollywood long ago. What took the CIA so long?
ROBERT BAER: It goes against the nature of the work, because an organization like the CIA should operate in the shadows. It's not because it has anything to hide in terms of the law, or shouldn't have, but you just don't want the opposition to figure out what you're doing and how you do it. If, if I could just say something - it looks there's a Faustian bargain between Hollywood and the CIA. The CIA has told Hollywood we will open our doors, we will show you how -what it's like working in the CIA. We will show you how people work in carrels, the color of our badges, you know -- things that aren't important -- and in return you'll make favorable movies. I watched The Sum of All Fears last night. There's absolutely nothing there that I recognize other than the color of the badges. Does Hollywood get anything out of -- I don't know - but there was no real operations exposed in this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did you think of it as PR?
ROBERT BAER:You know what it reminded me of? It reminded me of the, of the films that came out during the Second World War that were manufactured by the Department of Defense. It's pure propaganda. I mean I understand why the CIA's doing it -- they have to improve their image. Will this work? I don't know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:As Congress ultimately considers whether to remove some of the constraints that have been imposed on the CIA because of past excesses, do you think that the entertainment media are supporting the idea that it's okay to give up these personal freedoms and these protections in exchange for national security? Does a movie like The Sum of All Fears give support to the positions of John Ashcroft?
ROBERT BAER: Yes, it does. In The Sum of All Fears, it's a lone CIA analyst in this case, is out taking the law into his hand. He breaks into the Pentagon. [CLIP FROM THE SUM OF ALL FEARS]
BEN AFFLECK AS CIA ANALYST: I just need to get this information sent. Please.
MILITARY GUARD: Not without authorization, you don't. Get him out of here.
BEN AFFLECK AS CIA ANALYST: What?! Wait a minute! Wait a minute! [SHOUTING] General! The President is basing his decisions on some really bad information right now! And if you shut me out, your family and my family and 25 million other families will be dead in 30 minutes!
ROBERT BAER: It's basically saying that any force necessary is legitimate and that's the only thing that's going to stand between us and Armageddon. And Hollywood is encouraging this right now. Or this mov--movie in-- you know - they're - I haven't seen all the movies, but this one did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You were in the CIA for some 21 years. When you were growing up, were there any films that introduced you to the idea of being a spy?
ROBERT BAER: The only one I can remember is James Bond, [LAUGHTER] the old James Bond movies with Sean Connery. [JAMES BOND MUSIC] [JAMES BOND CAR RACING]
GORGEOUS WOMAN: I'm beginning to like you, Mr. Bond.
SEAN CONNERY AS JAMES BOND: Call me James. [BOND THEME MUSIC]
ROBERT BAER: But by the time I joined the CIA, I was 23, I knew that that wasn't the way the place worked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, and the James Bond series says a lot about the so-called special relationship between the British and American spy agencies. In Ian Fleming's novels and even to some extent in John Le Carre's more ambiguous, darker renderings, the Brits have always had more brains than money and the Americans more money than brains.
ROBERT BAER: That's true. That's true. And the S.I.S. or MI-6 [sp?], as it's called, is in bad a shape as the CIA was in tur-- in the '90s. Didn't have any money. It didn't have any operations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But they had better novels.
ROBERT BAER: They had better novels. They've got better writers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:[LAUGHS] In fact, when you think about the novels of Le Carre and of Graham Greene, they, they tend to emphasize the ambiguous moral position of a man who must lie and sneak and steal and, and murder in the cause of a greater good. Robert Redford says as much to Brad Pitt in Spy Games -- a movie that I understood the CIA did not sanction and didn't much like.
ROBERT BAER: Yes, it's, it's absolutely true. And I liked the movie Spy Games, because it showed the difference between the way work is done in Washington, the bureaucracy, the politics, the lying -- and the field operative - which I was for 21 years - who at the end is betrayed. [CLIP FROM SPY GAMES PLAYS]
BRAD PITT AS CIA TRAINEE: What are you telling me? Schmidt was bait?!
ROBERT REDFORD AS CIA TRAINER: Yes.
BRAD PITT AS CIA TRAINEE: Ah, Jesus Christ! You just-- you don't just trade these people like they're baseball cards! This is not a [F**ing] game!
ROBERT REDFORD AS CIA TRAINER: Oh, yes it is. That's exactly what it is.
BRAD PITT AS CIA TRAINEE: Okay, then you've got to help me understand this one. And don't give me some bull[**] about the greater good!
ROBERT REDFORD AS CIA TRAINER: That's exactly what it's about. Because what we do is unfortunately very, very necessary, and if you're not willing to sacrifice scum like Schmidt for those that want nothing more than their freedom, then you better take a long, hard look at your chosen profession, my friend, because it doesn't get any easier.
ROBERT BAER: What you're asked to do is go abroad, make friends with foreigners, and once you've bonded with them, then you ask them to commit espionage -- betray their countries or betray a terrorist organization or whatever the--they've stood for in a long time, and you know in your heart that if something goes wrong, there's nothing the CIA can do for 'em. You can't tell them that up front. So it is morally ambiguous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:How do you feel about it then when you see it depicted that way in a movie like Spy Games or in Three Days of the Condor or in-- books by Le Carre and Graham Greene?
ROBERT BAER: They're accurate. They're accurate. It's hard for the CIA to conduct-- espionage in an open society. Americans don't like the CIA generally. They don't like the idea of spying. They don't like the idea of American officials breaking the law overseas. And this is I think one of the reasons it's g-- it got this bad image.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I just wonder whether we'll be in a position where real life history will compete with the history that we see on the big and the small screens. For instance, we have 3 new TV series: Alias, on ABC; Fox's 24; and The Agency on CBS. In one of the episodes of The Agency, CIA agents foil a plot by Cuban renegades to kill Fidel Castro when of course we all know that the truth is, is that the CIA was involved in plots to do precisely that --to kill Castro! So-- do you think that this attempt at revisionism will prevail? Can the CIA wipe the slate clean that easily?
ROBERT BAER: I think so. [LAUGHTER] My impression, as much as I understand the United States, is our historical memory is not very long, and I've spent a lot of time in the media since my book came out, and I've raised things like the attempts to kill Castro in, in the early '60s, and people don't know what I'm talking about. I've raised the Church and Pike Committee Hearings on the CIA -- how that hurt the CIA. People don't know what I'm talking about. They have asked me to explain what that is. So-- we can rewrite it. I think so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bob Baer, thank you very much.
ROBERT BAER: Thank you very much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Bob Baer, a former CIA operative, is also the author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism. [SONG PLAYS: SECRET AGENT MAN]
MAN: THERE'S A MAN WHO LEADS A LIFE OF DANGER. TO EVERYONE HE MEETS HE STAYS A STRANGER. WITH EVERY MOVE HE MAKES, ANOTHER CHANCE HE TAKES. THE ODDS ARE HE WON'T LIVE TO SEE TOMORROW. SECRET AGENT MAN, SECRET AGENT MAN...
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers with Sean Landis and Michael Kavanagh; engineered by Irene Trudel, Dylan Keefe and George Edwards, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Andy Lanset and Eric Wellman. Our web master is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Capello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [SECRET AGENT SONG]
MAN: ODDS ARE HE WON'T LIVE TO SEE TOMORROW. [FUNDING CREDITS]