Robert Baer is a former CIA case officer who served everywhere from Iraq to the former Soviet Union. (The 2005 film Syriana, starring George Clooney, was an adaptation of several of his books about the intelligence world.) Who better, then, to discuss Season 3 of “Homeland,” which premiered last night on Showtime? Every Monday, Baer and New Republic Senior Editor Isaac Chotiner will chat about the previous night’s episode. The conversations contain spoilers.
Isaac Chotiner: The most interesting aspect of the first episode was its politics. The first two seasons of the show were politically complex. You loved Carrie and Saul, and the Islamic terrorists were obviously bad. But it also seemed to me to be a liberal show, with warmongering American politicians doing stupid things, and with Islam presented in an essentially positive way. This first episode of Season 3 felt Tom Clancy-ish, in that you had the brave agents trying to protect America, and then you had the bad, spineless, presumably liberal Congressmen who won’t let them get on with their work, and want to tell them what they can and can’t do.
Robert Baer: Yeah. Congress is never that hostile to the CIA in real life. In the episode, Congress is bad, and you are led to believe that if they understood the subtleties of intelligence work, they wouldn’t be so nasty. Congress since September 11 has been completely supportive. They haven’t been happy about what the CIA has done, but they certainly don’t have the political strength to take it on and embarrass the director in front of a national television audience. It just wouldn’t happen.
IC: Exactly. In a Tom Clancy novel, there would be some sort of crisis in America, and then the media and the politicians would be out to get the chief executive and the agencies. But, as we know, when things such as a giant bombing happen [like the one at CIA headquarters at the end of Season 2], it’s the sort of the thing that engenders a lot of sympathy and support rather than blame.
RB: You’re absolutely right. Congress would simply cave and let the agency and the FBI get to the bottom of the investigation, and whatever tidbits the agencies handed over to Congress would be gratefully accepted.
IC: It’s not weird to root for an antihero on television. Lots of shows ask you to do that. But here they are asking us to root against the people who are actually trying to do the right thing: i.e., the members of Congress who are rightfully outraged. The show is in a strange position because Carrie is the heroine and so we like her and we root for her, but she’s also completely insane, and these people should want to put her out of commission.
RB: In the CIA, If you’re crazy, if you’re sleeping with the enemy, if you’re whatever, you’re out. You’ve got the FBI all over you. In that sort of situation, she would be down under interrogation in the Washington field office. Phones would be tapped. With the evidence that Congress had, they should have gone after her. They’d have gone after the director. They should have gone after everybody. If they thought that they’d allowed the enemy within the building and set up a car bomb, it would be a catastrophe that the CIA should pay for. The other thing is the whole idea of ever sleeping with a source or anybody you’re using is wrong. The CIA just doesn’t permit it. You’re called home.
IC: But how common do you think that was? Or is?
RB: It’s happened, but it’s a no-no. You don’t get to do it. A male case office does not get to go out and sleep with a potential source and vice-versa. It’s against the rules. They have a name for it. It’s called “close and continuing contact.” You’re just done.
IC: That’s a nice euphemism.
RB: Yeah, people always ask what that meant. Well if you kept your slippers under your bedmate’s bed, then you were “close and continuing.”
IC: Got it. There was a lot of bad sex in this episode. There was the sex scene on the stairs which looked like the least comfortable thing I’ve ever seen and then there was the teenage sexting. It was all very unappealing.
RB: Yea, they’re trying to make the people human.
IC: I thought the most effective scene was the one where they’re conducting all six assassinations at once. It had the most tension, and it was the one part of the episode that got your pulse going a little bit.
RB: Yea, I totally agree with you, even if it was overdramatized. You know, it doesn’t work that way and you don’t get visuals like that and you don’t send somebody in Mission Impossible–style, with a silent pistol. If you even want to do a burglary in a house it will take a hundred people simply to keep track of everybody.
The scene I liked best was the one where the director betrays Carrie. The betrayal is in the blood of the people who run the CIA. When it comes time to sacrifice, they sacrifice people down the line. I felt for her when she watched him on television. That’s not how she would hear about it in the real world, but it’s standard procedure to do in a subordinate, especially a case officer.
IC: How would Carrie hear about it if not on television?
RB: They would do it in the newspaper. You know, the people on the seventh floor of the CIA keep good relations with journalists—The New York Times, The Washington Post. They’ll take and put something in the newspaper to change the direction of the conversation. Remember that Carrie is not allowed to meet journalists and put the story out the way she wants.
IC: Is it actually forbidden for somebody like Carrie to meet journalists?
RB: Totally. You wouldn’t go near them. If you’re at a party for a case office and you see a journalist, you go the other way. You never want to talk to a journalist about anything. But if you’re on the seventh floor, you’re protected. That’s the way they play the politics.
IC: Do you think case officers really don’t talk to journalists? Or do you think that’s a rule that’s broken a lot?
RB: No, because it would come up on a polygraph. I mean, there are some. You saw the FBI agent who compromised the Yemen operation. But he had obviously gone off the reservation; he had been fired for something else. But it’s rare that an FBI agent or CIA case officer would ever talk to a journalist. You avoid the parties. It’s really too bad because journalists, they’re useful and they know stuff. But the case officers—they don’t get on the net, they don’t put any sort of affiliation on Facebook, Twitter, nothing. They don’t go near it. Because you end up in limbo with a security investigation and you could stay there forever. You could even be let go at the whim of the director.
IC: Did you ever meet people like her, who had her level of psychological issues?
RB: Oh yeah, I mean, it’s the government, you can’t get fired. The CIA is always on the lookout for people. I had them working for me. I used to joke that I wanted a metal detector up in my office because I was worried about one woman in particular who would come through with a pistol. There’s terrible shuffling around with what to do with these people, where you put them. I had a former colleague that claimed that there was another agent that had gone to conference, and he was mad at the director of operations, and he actually threatened him and the FBI eventually arrested him with a gun in his car.
But what would be very difficult is to leave someone like Carrie in a position where she would keep being used on various operations because she’s an unguided missile. The CIA is terrified of breaking the law. It always has been since the ‘70s, and it will go out of its way to be inclusive with the White House and the Department of Justice.
IC: I did think the show picked up a little life in the second half just because of the assassination and when Saul finally sells out Carrie. But otherwise…
RB: It’s a soap opera.
IC: Bob, let’s not get too negative, we have 11 episodes to go!
RB: I don’t mean soap opera in a bad way. I mean, how do you bring the soap opera to the federal government? I think they’ve done a pretty damn good job of it.