Anthony Bourdain Talks Travel, Food, and War

Anthony Bourdain

I’ve never met anyone interested in the world around them who isn’t terribly envious of Anthony Bourdain. Fans of his books, shows like No Reservations and Parts Unknown know that he is far more than a roving chef. He is a keen observer of the human condition who leverages mankinds’s shared passion for a well-cooked meal as a tool of discovery. In over a decade of circling the globe he has seen the best and worst that humanity has to offer and he has seen it in more places than the vast majority of us could ever hope to visit. This broad experience, and the ability to think deeply about the world around him, truly sets him apart. It’s also why interviewing him for Blogs of War is an absolute no-brainer.


John Little: So I would not be surprised if some readers are confused by your appearance on a war blog but conflict, history, geography, and food are intimately related aren’t they?

Anthony Bourdain: I wouldn’t have thought so when I first set out traveling the world with nothing really on my mind but shoving food in my face, but right away–very early on–I came to realize that everything, particularly something as intimate as a meal, is a reflection of both a place’s history and its present political and military circumstances. In fact, the meal is where you can least escape the realities of a nation’s situation. People tend to be less guarded and more frank (particularly when alcohol is involved). What you are eating is always the end of a very long story–and often an ingenious but delicious answer to some very complicated problems. Within months of leaving the professional kitchen for what turned out to be a non-stop voyage around the world, I found myself in the Mekong delta sitting down and getting hammered with a group of former VC. The senior member of the group was a very old dude, who when I asked if he felt any animosity towards me, towards my country, why he was being so damned nice, laughed in my face and started ticking off all the other countries he’d fought in his time: Chinese, French, Japanese, Cambodians, Chinese again. He basically said, “don’t flatter yourself that you were anything special–now drink!”. When you travel with no agenda other than asking the simple questions, sharing a moment with people around the table, people tell you extraordinary things. You tend to notice things that can’t be avoided. The guy cooking dinner for me near The Plain of Jars in Laos was missing a few limbs. It was worth asking how that happened. The answer–though simple–tends, in such circumstances–to lead to very complicated back stories. In this case, a simple, question with a very long and frankly fascinating answer (our enormous secret war in Laos).

But finding myself in Beirut during the 2006 war was clearly a defining moment for the show–and some kind of crossroads for me personally. To stand there, day after day, useless and relatively safe by a hotel pool, looking at the people and the neighborhoods I had just been getting to know being hammered back 20 years a few short miles away was ..well..it was something. And the complete disconnect between what I was seeing and hearing on the ground from Beirutis of all stripes and what was being reported was something that stuck with me. Beirut is such a fantastic city–a place of such unbelievable possibilities. You can be sitting by the pool or listening to techno in a club one minute and having a wary conversation with Hezbollah ten minutes later. Its a very short ride. For all its problems ( all the problems and all the evils in the world in miniature, basically), it’s an absolutely magical, gorgeous city. Impossible to not fall in love with. It’s pheromonic. Some cities just smell good the second you land.

After Beirut, there was a conscious effort to tell more complicated stories . We realized that when you ask people “What do you like to eat? What do you like to cook? What makes you happy?” and are willing to spend the time necessary to hear the answers, that you are often let “in” in ways that a hard news reporter working a story might not be. So I’ve been able to look at places like post Benghazi Libya, the DRC, Liberia, Haiti, Cuba, Gaza, the West Bank, Kurdistan and recently Iran from a very intimate angle. Those are all very long stories–and if you don’t take that time to listen, to take in the everyday things–the things that happened before the news story, there’s not much hope in understanding them.

An interesting thing we noticed a while back was when we were shooting in pre-revolution Egypt. When we expressed a desire to shoot a segment at one of the ubiquitous street stands selling ful, our fixers and translators, who, no doubt also worked for some sinister department of the Interior Ministry, were absolutely adamant that we not do it. What was it about this simple, everyday, working class meal of beans and flatbread that just about everyone in Cairo was eating that was so threatening? Turns out, they knew better than us. The price of bread had been going up. The army controlled most of the bakeries and stocks of flour. There had been riots over bread elsewhere in the country. And the inescapable fact was that ful was ALL that much of the population was eating and the bastards knew it. That was an image they apparently considered sensitive, dangerous: their countrymen eating bread.

If you’re going to shoot in a place like the Congo, you can’t just show up and ask what’s for dinner–it’s essential to know the history. It’s so central to everything you see and experience. It hangs over everything, practically suffocates it at times. “Why are things like this?” You need at least a clue. You have to read up before you even think about going. (In my case, Congo has been a decades long obsession) . Otherwise you’ll look like an idiot. Or worse, find yourself in some serious shit.

Some environments,like Libya, its nice to know the history but events on the ground change so quickly it almost doesn’t matter. You have to develop a whole new style of moving and adapting. You learn as you go. And you learn fast.

John Little: Your work has taken you to more parts of the world than most of us could ever hope to see. Is it difficult to reconcile the hospitality you receive on your travels and the commonality of experience we have with food with the brutal reality we see around us every day?

Anthony Bourdain: It is a constant series of surprises, of having everything I thought I knew turned upside down. People nearly everywhere have been lovely to me. Most places,people are extremely proud of their food and are frankly flattered when somebody asks about it. Palestinians in particular seemed delighted that someone–anyone–would care to depict them eating and cooking and doing normal, everyday things–you know, like people do. They are so used to camera crews coming in to just get the usual shots of rock throwing kids and crying women.

I used to think that basically, the whole world, that all humanity were basically bastards. I’ve since found that most people seem to be pretty nice–basically good people doing the best they can . There is rarely, however, a neat takeaway. You have to learn to exercise a certain moral relativity, to be a good guest first–as a guiding principle. Other wise you’d spend the rest of the world lecturing people, pissing people off, confusing them and learning nothing. Do I pipe up every time my Chinese host serves me some cute animal I may not approve of?

Should I inquire of my Masai buddies if they still practice female genital mutilation? Express revulsion in Liberia over tribal practices? Fact is, the guy who’s been patting my knee all night, telling jokes, sharing favorite Seinfeld anecdotes, making sure I get the best part of the lamb, being my new bestest buddy in Saudi Arabia will very likely later, on the drive back to the hotel, guilelessly express regret over what “the Jews and the CIA” did to my city on 911. What do you say to that? Or in Anatolia, the Kurdish religious elders there who asked me for reassurance that “Obama is indeed a Muslim, yes?”. I hated to disappoint them. So I didn’t. My first obligation, I feel, is to be a good guest. I go to great lengths, and have had to choke down some pretty funky meals to do that. Its a strategy I highly recommend if you’re looking to make friends and have a good conversation. Sometimes you have to take one for the team but its well worth it.

Iran was mind-blowing. My crew has NEVER been treated so well–by total strangers everywhere. We had heard that Persians are nice. But nicEST? Didn’t see that coming. Its very confusing. Total strangers thrilled to encounter Americans, just underneath the inevitable “Death To America” mural. The gulf between perception and reality, between government policy and what you see on the street and encounter in peoples homes, in restaurants–everywhere–it’s just incredible. There’s no way to be prepared for it.

Blogs of War - Anthony Bourdain Interview

Trying to reconcile the very real consequences of Iranian foreign and national policy with the way Iran is internally–and who is actually living there, how old they are, what they actually want and believe in. VERY confusing.

Its easier to think of Iran as a monolith–in an uncomplicated, ideological way. More comfortable, too. Life ain’t that simple . It IS complicated. And filled with nuance worth exploring.

A constant on my travels is nice, incredibly hospitable people, often very reasonable people. Unfortunately, another constant is that nice, reasonable people are being ground under the wheel.

John Little: You visited Gaza and the West Bank in season two of your show Parts Unknown. You showed a rare ability to find hope and tragedy on all sides. Did filming that episode change your view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any way? On a personal level does that awareness lead anywhere positive or do you just find yourself hopelessly conflicted?

Anthony Bourdain: Its impossible to see Gaza, for instance, the camps, the West Bank and not find yourself reeling with the ugliness of it all. The absolute failure of smart, presumably good-hearted people on both sides to find something/anything better than what we’ve arrived at. And the willingness of people to not see what is plainly apparent, right there, enormous and frankly, hideous. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it’s nearly impossible to even describe reality much less deal with it. It’s utterly heartbreaking.

John Little: Your introduction to that show really resonated with me. You said “There’s no hope, none, of ever talking about it without pissing somebody, if not everybody, off…By the end of this hour I will be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool. a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an orientalist, socialist, fascist, CIA agent, and worse.” Unfortunately, this is a typical day for me on Twitter. The inability to have an honest public discussion about this conflict without facing virulent attacks from all sides only perpetuates the tragedy doesn’t it? Was the inevitable blow-back cause for any trepidation on your part or did you just charge in?

Anthony Bourdain: I thought about how I was going to do a show in the region for a very long time. And yes, there was a lot of trepidation. And I knew there would be recriminations and unhappiness no matter what I did or said or showed. But ultimately, I decided to just say, fuck it and take it head on. Frankly, it was much better received than I could ever have expected. The reaction from the Arab and Palestinian community was overwhelmingly positive–which I found both flattering and dismaying. I say dismaying because I did so little. I showed so little.It seems innocuous. But it was apparently a hell of a lot more than what they are used to seeing on Western television. For some, unfortunately, depicting Palestinians as anything other than terrorists is proof positive that you have an agenda, that you have bought in to some sinister propaganda guidelines issuing from some evil central command in charge of interfacing with Western com/symp dupes. A photo of a Palestinian washing their car or playing with their child is, therefore automatically “propaganda.”

I recently retweeted a photo of two dead children on the beach in Gaza. I had walked on that same beach. The photo (which later appeared on the front page of the New York Times) was taken from–or near–the same hotel I had stayed in. I am the father of a 7 year old girl who I, of course, adore. I retweeted the picture with the comment that as a father, as someone who had walked that beach, I felt particularly horrified. That’s all I said. The reaction? This was not, it would seem a “Oh, yeah? well, what about..?” situation. The photo did not require, one would think, any equivalency, a countervailing argument. It’s a picture of dead children. Period. The appropriate reaction, one would think would be “How terrible!”. But, as it turned out, of course, even this image would be hijacked by extremists of both sides, the conversation devolving into ugly racist shit and accusations.

This is all too often the world we live in now–where even a simple, heartfelt, human reaction–the kind of emotion any father would have–is tantamount to choosing sides.

If I have a side, its against extremism–of any kind: religious, political, other: there’s no conversation when everybody is absolutely certain of the righteousness of their argument. That’s a platitude. But it’s still true.

John Little: So you told me in a previous exchange that you’re a bit of an espionage geek. You are fascinated by KGB defector Yuri Nosenko and you have picked mushrooms with Victor Cherkashin (the KGB counterintelligence officer who ran Aldrich Ames andRobert Hanssen). With all the travel, contacts you make, and fixers you employ I imagine that there must be more than a few moments where you and your crew cross paths with intelligence officials and spies. Does it ever get interesting? And as a frequent traveler, observer, writer, and relationship builder do you find that you share a lot of common ground with intelligence professionals?

Anthony Bourdain: Sometimes its charming. Often it’s not. Often our fixers in a Communist country, for instance, will, after a few drinks, fess up. Basically they will admit they work for the intelligence service and will ask earnestly that we do whatever the hell we want as long as we don’t embarrass them or make them look bad. They’re supposed to be watching us, but chances are, they have people watching them too. We try to be sensitive to that. We are who we say we are. Our “agenda” is exactly what we said it was. So it’s usually not difficult.

I’ve actually become good friends over the years with some of them. And its something we always have to think about: I can go back home and say whatever I want about my experiences in China, for instance. But the people who trusted us, hung out with us, helped us while we there–they remain. There can be consequences to what I end up saying on TV. Not for me. For the people who were with us while in country. I try, as best I can, to be sensitive to that. I’m not looking to put anybody in the soup. Even if they were spying on me. They are, after all, just doing their job.

I like grey areas, obviously. I like ambiguity (the Nosenko case being a terrific example) –and tend to enjoy the company of people who deal in ambiguity. Victor Cherkashin . Nice guy. Great host, lunch companion. A man who has done–what we would certainly describe as many bad things. I feel the same way about Ted Nugent. I don’t have to agree with a guy to enjoy their company. As a political ideology and as a practical matter, I loath communism. However, I often find myself getting along very well with communists. I feel the same way about Red State America. Not my world, not always my point of view. But I always have a good time in gun country America and tend to like the people I meet. Palin sticker on your bumper or Che Guevara–if you have a sense of humor and enjoy food made with pride, chances are, we can be pals.

Blogs of War - Anthony Bourdain Interview

I assume I share one characteristic with a good case officer: empathy. I’m good at looking at things from the other guy’s point of view. I can put myself in their shoes. I’m willing to reach out. I’m a good listener. The overlap pretty much ends there.

Convincing some poor slob to betray his country, though–which is pretty much the job of the spook–is something I’d never have the stomach for.

You can follow Anthony Bourdain on Twitter @Bourdain and @PartsUnknownCNN.

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Robert Levinson: Our Unfinished Business

It might seem odd that someone who worked at the CIA would offer up an opinion piece not related to Osama Bin Laden, on this, the 2nd anniversary of his ending. I actually think that now is the perfect day to talk about more important issues. I can think of no more important issue than the repatriotisation of captive American citizens abroad. That objective is complete….Levinson isn’t.

Levinson

The receptionist had a bowl of mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups on her desk. I remember that much. The large conference room where the asset validation / recruitment pitch security reviews were held for the Iran Operations Division was located in the main Iran Operations Division (IOD) Secure Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF). It was through a short maze of cubes filled with an operational targeting group and support staff. At the top of a raised section of the SCIF were a row of offices, and a few large sections of ceiling high glass that made up one wall of the conference room. Like most of the conference rooms I had been in at the Agency (and come to think of it, the other government jobs I’ve had) this one was mostly crammed full of a much too large conference table surrounded by an unwieldy amount of swivel chairs. To make matters worse, the outer edges of the room were encased with more chairs for overflow. It gave you a good sense of what goldfish must wake up to every day. Minus the reception desk with candy, and no I didn’t eat any.

I didn’t have access to this wing yet, having just moved to IOD, even though it had been over a month. I was in a SCIF across the hall and found this all out while on my way to the late morning meeting. Moments before I had grabbed my files and notes, headed out the SCIF I was in, and across the hall to the main door.

Beep

My blue badge just coughed at me; the obvious clunking of the magnetic lock suspiciously missing from my attempt at getting into my meetings. Nothing but silence, so I tried again.

Beep

Nope, not a fluke, I couldn’t get in. Just then the door burst open and a few people walked out, most likely on the way for a mid morning Starbucks break down the hall. In I went; ‘tail gating’ my way into the SCIF.

My first stop was down a long row of cubes straight ahead of me. My first office-mate from initial training was working as a Targeter somewhere along these rows. I had been bugging her for a few weeks to meet up and talk shop about IOD. She’d been there longer than me, and I wanted info on the Division. She’s also extremely focused and not surprisingly kept putting off meeting because she’d had too much she wanted to get done. Also no surprise, her cube was empty as she was in another meeting. Oh well, off to the conference room I went.

I was the second Staff Operations Officer (SOO) presenting a case at that mornings meeting. As this was my first, I was a little nervous. I knew the case, but felt like I had a vested interest given my previous line of work. These meetings were used to present potential agents, or HUMINT sources, for further development, recruitment, some sort of operation, handling issue or termination in a peer review setting. The peers in this case were more senior officers from the given division or operation group, as well as referents from the Counter Intelligence Center, Office of Security, the appropriate Directorate of Science and Technology officer and the ever present legal representative. The meetings were a clinical affair, at least based on my experience. I had written up my briefing packet and had pretty much gotten is signed off by the relevant officers already the day before via email. I figured this would be a formality.

I started my Federal career as a Special Agent with what was the US Customs Service / Immigration and Naturalization Service Post 9/11 Bush era mash-up formerly known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (now Homeland Security Investigations). After a half decade of working a spectrum of customs and immigration cases I decided I needed a change and went through recruitment and hiring for the National Clandestine Service at the CIA. During that time, on March 9th, 2007 retired FBI Special Agent Robert Levinsonwas kidnapped while working a post retirement private sector investigations job that took him to Kish Island, a resort spot and free trade zone in the Persian Gulf, in Iran.

I have never been a traditional “cop” type of investigator. Though I respect and honor the “thin blue line”, I think I’ve always done a pretty good job at maintaining my old friendships and not being “that guy” who looks like a cop and only hangs out with other cops. That said, I did and do take law enforcement very seriously and one thing that has always been a constant for me is looking out for my brothers and sisters on the job. I never knew Robert Levinson, and wasn’t a Bureau agent (worked with plenty), this event really made me take notice however. A part of me filed it away and though I probably wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time, I assumed that the Bureau would do right by their former agent and move heaven and earth to get him back.

Now over two years later, everyone is filing into the IOD conference room, and Robert Levinson is fresh on my mind. I had been working the desk of my particular IOD branch for a number of months and felt good to be finally making some headway on a developmental asset, especially when that asset was saying they had information about Robert Levinson. I’d like to think that anyone sitting on the desk at that time would have been interested like me, but most likely it was my previous Special Agent background that made me push the officer in the field on this case.

The officer in question was a bit of an oddity. Not only was he based in National Resources; he was also a Staff Operations Officer (SOO) like myself. This meant he had been a SOO for a while before heading to Ops Certification at the Farm, so he could then officially recruit his own agents. This was also one of his first developmental assets, so it was our own special “big deal”, not that any of the more seasoned officers around seemed to care.

National Resources (NR) seems to be one of those misunderstood offices within the NCS. A few previous CIA officers, Henry Crumpton and “Ishmael Jones” for example, have detailed a bit about NR in their recent books. I had exposure to NR while working for the agency formerly known as ICE (or HSI as its called now), and later worked in NR for a time once inside the CIA. I find that most people I speak with see some kind of nefarious purpose for having what are supposed to be overseas “Spies” working within the United States. For clarity sake, NR is charged with a few very important functions that make operating within the US essential and beneficial to the Agency and our nations citizens.

NR officers handle communications and debriefings with US citizens who willingly cooperate with the Agency. These would be people traveling to countries of interest, or working with specific people of interest to the Agency. There are some other mechanisms here I won’t detail, but they pertain to agreements with companies in the US for similar activities.

Officers from NR also work to spot, assess, develop and recruit foreign individuals who are traveling inside the US. These might be people who live within the US continually with some form of permanent immigration status (green card, etc) or with a visa. Their access may involve them traveling back to their country of origin and then returning to the US. At that point they’d be met and debriefed by the NR officer. The scenarios vary quite a bit, but most NR spots are quite busy, and I’ve assisted in some very interesting requirements based on NR cases. One such recruitment was facilitated by utilizing my previous years working immigration cases as a Special Agent with ICE to dig through hundreds of files in a targeting assignment to find a good lead for an officer to approach. In the end, the officer used my targeting package to successfully recruit and run this individual. I only know all this because my supervisor in that office was nice enough to keep me updated on the cases after I moved to DS&T.

My specific case on this day centered on an individual within the Iranian security apparatus. As things panned out they claimed to have access to a wide variety of information, some of which was related to Kish Island activities as well as the kidnapping of Robert Levinson. His motivation was purely financial, and our hope was to get some kind of good validating info about his access from an upcoming meeting. I felt the review was a moot point, so when it was my turn I quickly presented the case and led with what I thought was the most crucial bit of information we wanted to know more about: Levinson.

“I don’t want to hear fucking Kish Island mentioned again!”

It was blurted out with such a bureaucratically laced snide plop that I was caught a bit off guard. Factor in that it was one of the Deputy Chiefs of Operations for IOD who threw it down at me in the middle of my brief, well, let’s just say I wasn’t used to being talked to that way. I took a quick breath, sat on the comment for a second, suppressing my initially reaction that I won’t detail here, and then continued explaining why I thought the issue was important.

He wasn’t having any of it. He said he didn’t care to hear more, and that he had been led to believe there was more to this potential asset than anything to do with Kish Island. I quickly made my case and roped in one of the referents that had given me the unofficial sign off to present the case that morning. The Deputy Chief then seemed to sputter out, as if it had been some sort of compulsory obligation, not unlike the Brooks Brothers he was sporting that day. The operation was given an initial approval, so basically the officer could meet the potential asset and potentially recruit them. It all seemed really a strange and unnecessary way of recruiting people. When I’ve worked confidential informants in the past, well, I had done it differently, but I don’t own a nice suit, so what do I know?

Now, at this point I should say that I really wish I had some miraculous breakthrough with the Levinson case. It’s obvious that I did not, and had no other real part in this. I don’t know much of what happened after I rotated out of the office for a training course. After my certification course I jumped Directorates and moved to the Directorate of Science and Technology. I didn’t get any other updates from that office. This was, and absolutely still is, common for officers moving around to different offices in their careers at the Agency. As much as Agency HRS folks like to talk about “Hall Files” (your reputation at the Agency, as whispered in the halls), I found out early that just about every officer is as good as their most current assignment or operation. You might have things keep you in the spotlight throughout your career, but as soon as your flame goes dim, the giant information pit that is the Agency swallows you up. Much like Iran swallowed up Robert Levinson.

I have spoken with a former colleague and friend of Levinson, as well as exchanged messages with members of his family. I’m no expert on the man, by any stretch, but its clear that he is highly respected by his friends and loved by his family. In January of this year the Levinson family started a White House online petition that requested the government focus their energy on finding and freeing Levinson. The shocking result was that way more people turned out in favor of the creation of a “Death Star”

I found out more recently that several offices did get spotty information about Levinson during my time at the Agency. It seems like those cases and experiences were kind of like mine. Some initial interest, then nothing. Not like an effort not to do anything about Levinson, more a general uncertainty or inaction with regards to the information that was coming in. For instance, one officer I spoke with had been asked to review a video that was believed to be of Levinson while working in another IOD office. There was no follow up that he knew of, however.

I started out writing this piece before March of 2013, hoping to have this completed in time with Robert Levinson’s 7th anniversary in captivity. That obviously did not happen. I noticed that several organizations made statements about Levinson’s plight, including various former and current FBI Special Agent Associations, to include a moment of silence marking the dubious anniversary. While the attention and respect for their own is to be respected and honored, I can’t help but wonder what exactly has changed?

Robert Levinson is not the only American in captivity, not even the only being held by Iran. How many other anniversaries have gone by without much notice? How many other junior intelligence officers have pitched access agents who are said to have knowledge of Americans being held overseas? Were those cases given more attention by management?

Now that I am out of that direct stream of knowledge, I really could not even guess. As a country we seem to have a very short memory when it comes to critical events, so I would not be surprised if the Robert Levinson’s captivity, and that of former US Marine Amir Hekmati or pastor Saeed Abedini are not garnering the kind of attention that should really be given to those of our citizens being held captive by another nation.

Popular culture has educated people with the common US Military motto of “No Man Left Behind”. Though not always a reality, the spirit of the motto is something we could all do better at.

CIA Memorial WallThis is the point where I reach back to new officer training at the Agency and try to tie in history with the present day. As part of new officer training we all were encouraged to read “The Book of Honor” by Ted Gupp. His book details a number of the fallen Agency officers that have stars appearing on the Wall of Honor in the Original Headquarters Building (OHB) , and appear in the Book of Honor at the base of the wall. I bring this up because I think its very relevant to this discussion of our citizens in captivity around the globe.

I also bring it up because I just recently listened to the audiobook (I drive a lot for my current job and listen to quite a few audiobooks). Upon hearing these stories again, all the while thinking of Robert Levinson’s case, I see a definite pattern emerge. While the “Book of Honor” details CIA officers who perished in the line of duty, the lack of positive action, or downright inaction of our most senior officials in doing everything possible within their power to help US Citizens in harms way or captivity is shocking. If you are not familiar with these people I urge you to read or listen to Ted Gupp’s excellent book. In it you will learn about the likes of legendary Hugh Francis Redmond who spent 19 years as a captive in China, or John J. Merriman who though not a captive, was seemingly denied much needed medical aid after a plane crash in the Congo in 1964.

It seems to me as if government officials don’t care about what happens to Levinson. My feeling is that the issue is so far out of hand, that unless a direct and easy solution presents itself, the predominant risk adverse nature of our current intelligence apparatus will drag its feet until that “sure thing” comes along. This I believe needs to change. We as citizens should demand that our government takes immediate action to secure the release of our fellow citizens being held captive overseas. Its time to stand up and fight for people like Robert Levinson. We can choose to spend our precious time foaming about previously authorized interrogation programs, the stock market or movie stars, or we can take a stand for something more lasting and meaningful. People like Robert Levinson spent a career in service to our country. I don’t know his career trajectory, but it is safe to say from my first hand experience as a Special Agent, he gave more than he got to the citizens of this nation. He doesn’t deserve to sit locked up by a sworn enemy like the Iranian regime.

You might be asking yourself what you can do to help. If so, I’m glad to hear it. I’m not sure what good it actually does, but Internet access makes it very easy now to contact your representative. Why not check out http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/Twitter, retweet it. Then follow @HelpBobLevinson and show your support.

You can find that information on the Levinson family’s website as well as on the Wikipedia page devoted to him.


Theodore W. WeaverTheodore W. Weaver is a former Intelligence Officer within the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and the Directorate of Science and Technology. He has close to a decade working as a Special Agent with several Federal agencies and has worked against counter proliferation, human trafficking/smuggling, child exploitation, Intellectual Property Rights violations and narcotics. You can follow him on Twitter or via the nascent Inglorious Amateurs website.

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Free Syrian Army Brigade Threatens to Execute Iranian Captives

Freedom fighters do not execute hostages even when they might actually deserve it:

A brigade from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) known as the Bar’a released a video aired on Al-Arabiya in which they warned they would execute an Iranian prisoner “for each martyr who is killed.”

The militia group kidnapped 48 Iranians at the beginning of August, claiming that they were members of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards. However, the Iranian government says they are pilgrims on their way to visit a shrine in southeast Damascus and has appealed to Qatar and Turkey to help free the hostages.

Iran admitted in September that it had posted members of the Guard in Syria, working as “high-level advisors.”

The RT piece claims that this is the first time that the FSA has threatened to execute hostages but these threats have been issued before. I also have no doubt that similar threats will be issued, and acted upon, again and again before this conflict is over.

Honestly, I’m less worried about the fate of these Iranians than I am about Syria’s ability to transition past Assad and into stability. If Syria’s future holds anything it is more inhumanity, more division, and less rationality. It’s red on red on red on red on red violence infused with the usual suffering innocents and a sprinkling of honest well-intentioned participants. As for the well-intentioned, they remain disastrously fractured, and signs of hope are too sparse to generate optimism:

…survival has taken clear precedence over organizing for self-rule. Absence of leadership gives way to pronounced divisions among various factions—at the local levels—and civilians face enormous challenges in creating a governing body that will effectively enforce a local peace.

I found the sustainability of these newly-found freedoms questionable. A litany of issues plague the FSA and even the most developed of local self-ruled towns: rising sectarian tension, infighting, lack of leadership, and a dearth of resources. Simply put, the militias in these areas are inadequately armed—especially against the regime’s increasing air attacks. Of more than half a dozen members of the youth organization I had a chance to talk with, the main complaint was always the same: lack of logistical help from the outside.

My conversations, interviews, and observations in two weeks on the ground have reinforced my opinion that the quest for self-rule is well-rooted and real. But while the international community wants to see a better Syria in a post-Assad period, the present form of Syria’s conflict poisons the possibility of a quick transition to a constellation of self-ruling structures in the capillary towns. The small steps that have been taken thus far fall short of ensuring long-term success…

Progress, if you can call it that, has been terribly slow. It seems that the present is also the future. Only dramatic intervention will change the equation and, even then, success (by any party’s definition) may remain elusive. That’s not an argument for intervention but rather an acknowledgment that free Syrian unity and leadership are likely to remain missing in action.

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Want to Prevent War with Iran? Take the Gloves Off

Iran’s relationship with the United States, and Western world in general, has been defined by the assumption that they are in some sense untouchable. Many in the West subscribe to this notion as well. Analysts are quick to point out that intense Iranian nationalism is a barrier to any attempts at deconstruction/reconstruction of their political system. Invaders, even those with good intentions, are not welcome. Counterterrorism types are quick to point to Iran’s feared global network of terror facilitators and proxies who will respond to any conventional military attack with wave after wave of terrorist attacks on every corner of the globe. This is Iran’s version of mutually assured destruction and it has served them well.

Our own capabilities have served us well too. The Iranian political class does not want what is assuredly an unsurvivable conventional war. Their strategy, executed quite well I think, has been to challenge the West on multiple fronts while always pulling back short of the line. They believe that they can play dirty while the West is shackled by ethical constraints and fear of putting boots on the ground.

By identifying and targeting those who actively work to support Iran’s most evil intentions (nuclear scientists for example) we can send a different message: you are not safe. In fact, you are not safe anywhere. You are not safe when you travel and, more importantly, you are not safe in your homeland. We will, if you persist, kill you during your morning commute. Do not sleep too soundly in that five star hotel because we just might smother your ass with a pillow.

Individual specificity is how we can wage war with Iran right now. It is brutal and ugly but it is less brutal and ugly than the alternative. In a war against individuals innocents are spared and justice is served. The illusion of safety for bad actors who support terrorism and seek the destruction of our state is shattered. Apply these tactics on a larger scale, over time, and these regimes will likely find it increasingly difficult to place intelligent people in supporting roles. The message to scientists, agents, oppressors, even “religious” leaders is clear: you are not just a small irrelevant cog in a larger machine, you are not lost in the crowd, you are the enemy and we will kill you.

There are definitely signs that this is happening, both in the struggle against Iran and in the greater war on terror. But is it happening on the scale needed to change some of these long standing assumptions? This is largely a covert effort (which it should be) so evaluation is difficult. Observers can only point to Iran’s behavior as an indicator. My gut feeling is that our capabilities in this area are increasing (just wait until we get indoor nano-scale lethal UASs) as is our comfort level with the approach but we’re not quite there. Iran continues to move aggressively froward on a dangerous track. Ironically, our greatest hope in preventing a devastating war is in taking off the gloves and getting dirty. We have to be as ruthless as our enemies without abandoning the values that set us apart.

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