What are the qualities of a really good spy?

14 years ago, in October of 2002, I interviewed former CIA operative (NOC), Robert Baer. Robert Baer is the author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism. It is the best book about the agency next to Legacy Of Ashes. During the mid-1990s, Baer went to Iraq with the mission of organizing a coup against Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. He was recalled and investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for allegedly conspiring to assassinate the Iraqi leader. If he had been successful, we might have avoided the tragic and fruitless Iraq War, which also created ISIL. His books and life ‘inspired’ the movie Syriana.

The interview was at his home in the capitol and while I expected to only have a half hour of his time, he gave me several hours. I never forgot the interview and his words resonated with me in a way that I couldn’t fully explain. At times, he seemed to be reevaulating his life so far and his reasons for doing the things he had done. More than a decade later, I find myself doing the same.

The similarity to a good spy and a good investigative journalist, especially one who is also a foreign correspondent, struck me as remarkable. Ultimately, the real difference is in why we seek the information and what we do with it and also how we protect our sources. Both the spy and the journalist want to believe that what they are doing is for the public good. The spy believes the information will protect the public from harm even if they don’t know it; the journalist believes that the public’s right to know is important and that knowledge enables informed decisions, thus protecting the public and democracy itself.

Spies are by nature duplicitous. And investigative journalists sometimes have to be as well. The irony of investigative journalism is that sometimes you have to con people to get them to tell the truth.

If you ask a sociopath an honest question, you will get a dishonest answer. Knowing how to get them to answer at all is part of the craft. Wanting to know the answer in the first place is aptitude.
What does it take to be a good spy? If you aren’t interested in picking up the binoculars, you probably aren’t suited for the job.

ADELSTEIN: What do you need to be a good intelligence officer? What are the qualities of a good spy?

MR. BAER: I think, first of all, you have to have someone who’s adaptable to the foreign cultures, as you know, and want to be there, secondly, is very important. I mean, you have to adapt and like it.

And, a third quality is curiosity. And, then, I’d add to that an ability to deal with people in a respectful way. Not only respectful but respecting their culture, meeting people and planning on being friends with them and then, of course, the key quality, the difference between just being a good salesman and a good case officer is you have to be able to really close the deal, which is hard to do.

If I tried to sell you my computer here I can give you a thousand reasons why you’d want to buy it, and it’s a good computer, and it’s an even deal. But, when I’m asking you to commit espionage, that’s really a big leap. It’s more than just buying a computer.

MR. ADELSTEIN: Yeah, that is a big leap, for most people. (Laughs.)

MR. BAER: And, you have to be able to do it, as well. I have to convince you that you should be a spy, betray your country. You know? Commit a capital crime or recruit a terrorist, and the cost is execution or assassination or whatever.

And, it’s a strange person who adapts to the job or likes the job.

MR. ADELSTEIN: How do you sell somebody on that and what’s the thing you appeal to? Their greed? Their desire to make the world a better case? Is it case by case?

MR. BAER: Well, you have to be able to suspend your morality, humanity, or whatever you want to call it, because committing espionage is not a good idea. It’s dangerous. It’s generally considered immoral, unless you’re going after terrorist groups, but for them those people are believers too.

So, you have to convince yourself, in order to be convincing, that this is a good thing for this guy to do.

And, you have to have a sense where people are going. You have to have a sense for people, who they are and what their grievances are and how they imagine themselves and what they’re lacking in their lives. And, it may simply be money.

You know, you go to a guy and say “This is the way out of all your problems. This is how you afford your mistress. This is how you send your kids to school. And, the chances of getting caught are zero.” You have to tell them that. You can’t tell them “You have a 22 percent chance of getting caught.” If you do, you can say goodbye.

I mean, you can’t be brutally honest. On the other hand, you can’t lie about it. You can’t say to somebody, “Well, you’re going to (be fine)— you’re never going to get caught,” because there’s always that possibility.

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