In their conversation about Episode 3 of Homeland, New Republic Senior Editor Isaac Chotiner and former CIA man Robert Baer discuss the way the Agency exerts psychological control over its agents, and whether the show is becoming more like "Breaking Bad."
Isaac Chotiner: Did you notice that this episode had a lot of spy-movie clichés? The first was the guy waking up in bed not knowing where he is. I suppose I should ask whether that has ever happened to you.
Robert Baer: No, no, no. The chances of a guy, without a network, on his own, getting in a fight with Colombians, getting shot twice in the stomach, and then getting rescued…
IC: I was confused by a lot of the episode, too. I watched several scenes twice, and I still didn’t know what was going on. I am not cut out for intelligence work. But anyway, a second cliché was the gruesome surgery undertaken by people who were not, shall we say, medical professionals.
RB: I actually sort of liked that. I liked the whole thing in Caracas with the building taken over by squatters.
IC: Which, I guess, is very prevalent in Venezuela.
RB: Yeah. And I thought it was a fantastic take—of being in this netherworld.
IC: Have you been to Venezuela?
RB: I’ve never been there.
IC: It was sort of interesting for them to locate it there. It gave the episode a slightly different feel than earlier seasons had.
RB: I actually liked it. I liked the dissonance of him waking up and hearing the mosque. They didn’t translate the Arabic, though I understood.
IC: What was it?
RB: He said he wanted to come back to Islam, that he wanted a second chance. He needed to be re-purified. The whole thing about drug addiction—clearly, they want to have this guy hit bottom, and have Carrie hit bottom.
IC: The scene where they come in and kill people in the mosque reminded me a little of "Breaking Bad." I don’t know if you watch Breaking Bad, but in the final season someone gets kidnapped and faces a lot of hardship and really hits bottom.
RB: I don’t want to hear it! I’m going to watch it.
IC: All right. I’ll explain it to our readers.
RB: It’s like Dante—you have to get to the bottom rung of hell before you can rise up again. It’s his voyage, and they’re trying to show how he’s headed off the grid, and the horrible things that have happened to him: the heroin addiction, getting beat up, being involved in a murder. He tried to stop a murder, but couldn’t.
IC: I have a question for you about the Carrie scenes. You mentioned that you thought the stuff that happened with her in the institution was very credible. You also mentioned lie detector tests being used constantly by the CIA. Can you describe some of the psychological dimensions of being a CIA agent? What psychological pressures there are…
RB: It’s huge. You’re put in a bubble. And they do it for counterintelligence reasons. So I know more about Washington and the CIA and the National Security Agency and all that shit than I ever did while in the CIA. It sounds strange. I just call international correspondents who deal with the CIA and ask questions: “Hey, who heads up the European position?” I don’t call CIA people, I call the press. “You know, he or she is a real prick.” Or something like that. They give me chapter and verse. I don’t know where they get this shit, but they know it all.
IC: Explain the bubble.
RB: You don’t know how the world works. You’re paranoid about it.
IC: To what degree are psychological tools used to keep people in check?
RB: Well, you get paid every two weeks. You’ve got security people, who are quite unpleasant when they call you into their offices. And your entire life is on the line when they call you in. Government phones, by law, are accessible to security people. Your line can be read by the bosses without a warning. It’s a government line. You have no expectation of privacy.
IC: Nobody does anymore!
RB: You and I can just say, fuck off, because we’re not paid by the government. But these people can be shown the door immediately. And when they show you the door, they basically hand you a box and say, “Put your shit in it.” And they show you the door, drive you up 123 and you’re out. You have no recourse, you can’t sue.
IC: What’s 123?
RB: It’s where CIA headquarters is. Route 123 in Virginia. Basically they drive you out and say goodbye, and watch as you pull up the driveway. And you’re done. You can’t sue. Congress isn’t going to listen to you. The CIA says, “This person’s crazy.”
IC: I think that’s been the most effective part of the show in the first three episodes, just the psychological control they hold over Carrie.
RB: They also pull you down to medical and get the psychiatrists. And they tell the psychiatrists, “This person’s crazy.” The psychiatrist doesn’t come back and say, “I might have to get this reviewed,” or, “Let’s send her outside.” You can’t even hire a lawyer that’s not cleared by the CIA.
IC: I don’t know if you read the story in the Times Friday about Edward Snowden. Apparently he said his patriotism was tested because, when he was working for the CIA as an analyst, he saw how people were recruited. In this episode it was Carrie’s patriotism that was tested.
RB: That was interesting. The CIA staff—in what would obviously be a blunt approach—will run somebody in to test an employee’s loyalty. I don’t think the Iranians or the Syrians would try to recruit an officer. But you can see the CIA going in and trying to probe what she had on her mind by throwing her a lifeline.
IC: Do you believe the cliché from literature, from Graham Greene and others, where you have the agent who slowly starts to become disgruntled? Or maybe not disgruntled, but he finds his patriotism ebbing. Do you feel that that was a common thing in the CIA?
RB: They become more cynical.
IC: Do you think that feeds into a lack of patriotism?
RB: No. The people that always broke—that had the manic breaks, volunteered for the KGB—were either very naïve or crazy. The other people just sort of laughed in their hats at the way the system works, and waited for retirement. A couple guys—talented ones—would take their badges, drop them off at the front desk, and go work on Wall Street, or wherever they made money.
IC: I suppose it would take a lot more than being disgruntled to make someone want to join Al Qaeda.