Robert Baer had just graduated from college when he filled out an application for the CIA as a joke. The phone call that followed shortly after ignited a 21-year career with the agency, and he worked as an operative all over the globe—but with a special focus on the Middle East. During his time as a clandestine agent, he chased down informants, mourned friends who were killed in the line of duty, and even made an assassination attempt on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
“I was in over my head every day,” Baer admitted to Mens Journal over the phone. “But you are driven by the idea that there is someone out there with your same skillset, or perhaps even better than you, working for the other side.” Baer documented his unique experiences—after a CIA redaction, of course—in his books Sleeping with the Devil and See No Evil, the latter of which served as source material for the 2005 film Syriana starring George Clooney.
Since retiring, Baer has become a hot commodity in Hollywood as a consultant on projects involving espionage, and he helps ensure that these films depict authentic portrayals of spycraft. His latest assignment has been advising for Amazon’s new hit series Jack Ryan, based on the popular book series by Tom Clancy.
We caught up with him about the work he’s doing on set.
Considering your background as a CIA officer, what do you think of the character Jack Ryan?
I have always believed that he is a pretty compelling character. For a CIA analyst to be out there doing the work of a case officer or operator is a very interesting hybrid. The fact that they also gave him this background as a Marine allows him to be capable during engagements as well. So the combination of all that makes for a really great thriller. My role was to help bring that realism to the scenarios that occur in the plot. The James Bond model is great, but it is completely unrealistic. So we had to figure out what situations would actually lead to Jack Ryan finding himself in those areas overseas.
What are you trying convey?
You have to show why someone like Jack Ryan would join the CIA, because a guy with that kind of motor and intelligence could be doing anything in the world he wanted. He could be a Fortune 500 CEO flying around in a Gulfstream, but instead he chooses to serve his country in this fashion. He is not a cowboy either. He doesn’t run into a room with his finger on the trigger. That is a particular kind of person.
You consulted on the movie Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit as well?
Yes, I remember my first sitdown with director Kenneth Branagh and Chris Pine in a hotel room in Los Angeles. You need to answer what drives someone this smart and capable in this line of work. Part of it is the existence of a competitor, someone who matches you working for the other side.
Is that similar to what you experienced during your career?
It is very similar. I became obsessed with chasing this one person who had blown up one of our embassies. I came to learn that he was a very dangerous person who perhaps was better at tradecraft than all of us. He became my white whale. Chasing him became the reason that I got out of bed in the morning.
You mentioned that you felt in over your head, and Jack Ryan certainly experiences that too. What was that like?
There were a lot of scenarios where I didn’t really know what I had gotten myself into, but I had to go with it. Once I spent a night drinking with a bunch of Russian army guys in Tajikistan, and they invited me to parachute with them the next morning. Our plane got caught in a storm, but the plan was still to jump. They told me to go first, and up until the moment when my parachute opened I was wondering what I had gotten myself into.
Did your training prepare you for being out in the field?
There was a lot of training when I started, but I’m not sure if you are ever prepared. They had us jumping out of airplanes, throwing grenades, and going through kill houses. I learned a number of languages. I was never eager to use a gun, but of course we were on the range. I actually lost part of my hearing shooting a 105mm recoilless rifle.
What element do most spy movies miss?
I think the element that gets lost often is what happens after someone attempts an operation in the field, whether it goes right or wrong. There are rooms that you are pulled into afterward, and they are very unpleasant. Everyone is looking at you under a microscope, and there is this bureaucratic hostility.
When did you face that yourself?
I was heading up a team in Iraq and I made an attempt on the life of Saddam Hussein. I was going to kill him. Unfortunately I was missing some paperwork to execute it and it became a criminal situation referred to the FBI. I tended to eat lunch alone at the office after the attempt on Saddam. Word got around. They saw me as a cowboy. The fact is when you work like Jack Ryan you are going to be looked at pretty closely by the people back home after being in a gunfight overseas. But listen, sometimes you just have to say ‘fuck it.’
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.