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'Homeland' Episode Two: A Former CIA Agent Assesses

Frank Okenfels/Showtime

The second episode of “Homeland” aired last night. In this installment of our weekly feature, New Republic senior editor Isaac Choitner and former CIA agent Robert Baer discuss the personalities of former CIA directors, the way the agency deals with agents it dislikes and the role of Muslims in American intelligence work. This article contains spoilers.

Isaac Chotiner: You’re an ex-CIA guy with intelligence expertise but I feel like I should be talking to a family counselor, given all the domestic drama in Episode 2. Unfortunately, Brody’s family is really not very interesting without him. But I did want to ask you about the bank that is apparently aiding Iran. I gather this plot was ripped from the headlines?

Robert Baer: First of all, the CIA would never call bankers down to Washington to talk things over. I understand why they had to do it for dramatic reasons. But once those connections were figured out, the FBI would simply go knock on their doors. And the chances of the whole thing not being handed over to Treasury, who are bulldogs on any banking connection, are zero.

IC:     It was the director of the CIA who was grilling bank executives!

RB: You have to do it for dramatic reasons. The CIA interacts with American business but on a very cooperative basis. In New York, you would know somebody that would know the bankers, and they would say what they have to say. But if there were any accusations of wrongdoing, they would show up with their attorney. And the Department of Treasury would be there. This is the whole problem with the show—it makes the CIA a domestic agency.

IC:     The subplot that will probably get the most ink is the one about the Muslim woman who works for the CIA. She wears a head covering and she gets yelled at by Saul because she is Muslim. I guess we are supposed to think that Saul is stressed out and being an asshole. But then she gets yelled at by the bank executive, too. It seemed a little dramatically off.

RB: That would never happen. I’ve had Muslims working for me. The head of the Counterterrorism Center, whose name we can’t use, converted to Islam. And it didn’t bother anybody. The CIA is too sophisticated to worry about that. I’ve never seen anybody in a head covering but that may have changed since I left. Muslims worked there and always have, whether they were translators, case officers. A Sunni Muslim used to work for me—he had spent almost ten years in the Marines, he spoke Arabic and Farsi. I had an Iranian Farsi speaker working for me. It never came up.

IC:     And you didn’t think there was resentment among other people in the agency?

RB: No one paid any attention.

IC:     Well, that’s good. I thought that scene where Saul is really mean to her was pretty ridiculous. To think that the director of the CIA is going to go and get angry at this woman because she is wearing a head covering …

RB: Let’s move on to Carrie, who is not doing so well. What really struck me, what I thought was fantastic, were the scenes with her. I’ve seen that over and over again where a potential whistle-blower would go to Congress—it’s happening as we speak right now—and then the Agency would act as if he or she had mental problems. I’ve even seen a colleague of mine go to a mental institution—never mind that he was probably crazy—but he was going on about how there were still arms going to Iran after Iran contra. I don’t think there was; in fact, I’m quite sure there wasn’t, but he was pushing this to Congress, and eventually, they got the FBI to arrest him and they hauled him off to a mental institution and then eventually to prison.

IC:     The CIA may be exploiting her, but she’s also insane.

RB: Yea, well that’s why you pick on people like that. You pick on the weak. This is classic B.F. Skinner. You find the weak person or the loudmouth and you go after them.

IC:     But she is legitimately crazy.

RB: Yeah, but she could still be crazy and right. It’s almost a management tool. And it’s not just insanity. It can be for perceived sexual harassment. Putting enough pressure on Carrie to drive her over the edge is totally plausible.

IC:     I agree. And effective dramatically. Certainly more so than all the teenage sex they’re subjecting us to. But I want to see her in action, directing things again and being smart. I can’t believe that they’re going to keep her in the hospital for much longer. The joy of the first two seasons is that you get to see her genius operationally and mentally.

One thing I was interested in: Saul is incredibly approachable as the director of the CIA—he’s walking around, he’s meeting with people. I’m just wondering, but are the people at the top of the CIA generally approachable?

RB: You got to go through aides. You don’t walk into the director’s office.

IC:     Yes, I figured that.

RB: You’ve got lines of people you have to get through. You’ve got aides and secretaries and they’re always sitting at a desk, every director I’ve ever met. He’s not walking around the building. [David] Petraeus would actually travel around the building in a phalanx of people. [Leon] Panetta used to bring his dog into work as a way to be more approachable. But they’re way to busy with budgets, daily calls, and daily meetings with the director of national intelligence. I’ve never seen, in protocol meetings—you know, it’s an awful job because basically foreigners are coming through, and they’re the head of some service and they say “I want to meet the director,” and they have a 30 minute with the director. They come in, they sit down and meet him. Being the head of the CIA is like being Secretary of State. They don’t have time to roll up their sleeves and walk around the building and look at documents. A director does not read more than a one-page memo, and it’s even better if it’s half a page. They don’t read files, they don’t carry files around, they don’t go to mental institutions to visit favorite case officers. They travel around with the security staff at home, they sit outside the house, they guard the house. They’ve built additions to director’s houses so that security can sit in. They always have armed people around them, especially after an attack like this.

IC:     I agree, but you can’t fault the show. They’ve got to have approachable characters. And you don’t want them meeting with the Malaysian director of intelligence. That’s not that interesting. 

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Robert Baer is a former CIA agent.