BILL KURTIS, BYLINE: From NPR and WBEZ Chicago, this is WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME, the NPR News quiz. I'm Perennial Time Man of the Year first runner up, Bill Kurtis. And here's your host at the Chase Bank Auditorium in Chicago, Peter Sagal.
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
Thank you, Bill.
SAGAL: Thanks, everybody. You have heard no doubt about the importance of STEM education. That's science, technology and I don't know the rest because I was an English major.
KURTIS: We don't need the last two because this week, we're going to blind you with science. It's a series of interviews with people who did the math, so you don't have to.
SAGAL: We'll start with the science of spy craft, Robert Baer, the longtime CIA operative who was played more or less by George Clooney in the movie "Syriana." He joined us in January of 2015, and I started by asking him how he got into the agency in the first place.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
ROBERT BAER: I did this as a joke.
SAGAL: No, really?
BAER: Yeah. I was at Berkeley and bored and called them up one day at the Federal Center. And they sent me an application - 50 pages long, and I filled it out. And I thought they're never going to hire me. My mom was a commie. You know, she used to teach at UCLA. And I was a ski racer, drugs, the whole thing. And they hired me.
BRIAN BABYLON: Wow.
PAULA POUNDSTONE: Were you up front about everything in your 50-page application?
BAER: I didn't really get into the LSD stuff, but, you know, this is Aspen in the '60s. Come on. I mean, this was snow capital, USA. There's cocaine. Everything was there. They should have known that. Seriously, I didn't think I was going to get hired. And, you know, go to the Federal Center, and there's this - invite you in a hotel, and call you up to a room. And ask you all these questions. Do you like guns? You know, do you want to go overseas and be a spy? And I said, well, you know, I don't know. Yeah, I guess. You know, I was 21 years old. What did I know?
SAGAL: Really? I don't know, I guess?
BAER: They called me, and they said can you be in Washington in two weeks? And I said I could be there next week. And in three months, I was jumping out of an airplane with a machine gun. And by then, I figured that was serious.
POUNDSTONE: So there was - it was only three months of training before you were jumping out of an airplane with a machine gun?
BAER: Yeah, it was amazing. They say the paramilitary course, they sent you - it was two years of training and that's without the language. There was another two years of Arabic, so they did it right away. They kicked you - a night jump, too - and showed you all this. And I don't even own a gun, you know - firing guns and blowing stuff up.
POUNDSTONE: What do you think attracted them to you?
BAER: I lived in Europe for a bunch of years, spoke a bunch of languages, could go away and didn't care. I think they liked the ski racing thing, you know, a downhill racer - he's got to be a little bit crazy.
SAGAL: You know, it's interesting because usually, on the few occasions I've talked to intelligence agents, they all sort of chuckle, and say, oh, no, no, no, it's nothing like you see in the movies. You sound like you could be in a movie, like downhill-ski-racer-bon-vivant-drug-user from Aspen - secretly a spy who jumps out of planes with machine guns.
BABYLON: Back to drugs and training. Did they like do like training where they'll give you a whole bunch of weed or LSD and see how much you can drink or smoke before you get too stoned or - so you're body can get used to it?
BAER: No, by the time they got in, you were just done with that. You know, you smoked a joint, and you were fired.
AMY DICKINSON: Brian has just described something he calls Friday night.
SAGAL: I mean, at what point - was there a point - was it, like, when you were jumping out of the airplanes or when you said to yourself, I actually like this because you were in the company for, like, what, three decades, right?
BAER: Yeah. No, it was more like what in God's name am I doing here?
BAER: When I tried to assassinate Saddam Hussein, and I was up there. And there were shells going back and forth, and I was in my REI jacket holding a Kalashnikov watch in the middle of a battle, and then almost getting indicted by the FBI for attempted murder of Saddam Hussein. Then I was really asking myself, what am I doing here?
SAGAL: Wait a minute.
BABYLON: You just said that real casually.
DICKINSON: Wait, they're the good guys.
SAGAL: Hold on. Let's slow down and take this beat-by-beat. So hang with me here. So when was this, exactly?
BAER: This was 1995.
SAGAL: 1995 - so post-Gulf War.
BAER: Yeah - I was sent to Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein. And I didn't have all the paperwork done completely. But I said it was close enough, so I just launched. And no one had told the White House or the FBI. So when I came back, you know, the FBI sort of met me at the airport and my whole team.
SAGAL: So they presumably, they let you go.
BAER: Yeah. I have a letter of declination declining to prosecute me for murder. It's sort of - you know, a lot of people have brag walls. But I got one.
SAGAL: That's pretty cool. So Robert, I just have to ask quick, did you have any, like, cool gadgets?
BAER: Oh, I had a lot of them. They were, you know, we had pens that fired, you know, silenced bullets. They were great.
SAGAL: Really? You had pens that...
BAER: Yeah. They're called sub-sonic. They're chemical bullets, and they fire out of a BIC pen.
POUNDSTONE: Can I ask you something? When you get a thing like that, when you get a pen like that, did you ever, like, just shoot through an office wall with it because you couldn't resist trying it out?
BAER: Well, there were accidents. I had - my Kalashnikov was full of explosive rounds. And I liked to keep a round in the barrel, but my bodyguard didn't realize that. So he was playing with the trigger while I was in lunch or something and pulled the trigger. And the entire explosives round went through the bottom of our new Toyota - just completely blew it apart.
SAGAL: I have to say, you know, it's been a rough couple of years for the CIA, and you're not really building up my confidence. So let's talk about the most important thing about your career as an international spy - and that is romancing the ladies. I'm sure that happened a lot, right?
BAER: Yeah, and got you in a lot of trouble.
BAER: Oh, yeah. I used to date the daughter of a KGB general, and that just flipped them out.
DICKINSON: Oh, my God.
SAGAL: So she was the daughter of a general in the KGB. Did it make for, like, awkward dinners when you went out with her and her parents? So how's work, you know?
BAER: No, her mom was cool. One time I got stuck in Moscow, and she diverted an airplane for me.
DICKINSON: Oh, my God.
BABYLON: Wow. This sounds like some eHarmony - (singing) this will be.
SAGAL: Did you during any of this have a code name?
BAER: I had a bunch of them. I had - I used to carry four or five passports in my pocket, different nationalities, different names.
SAGAL: Really? Well, did you have a cool codename? Like, you know, I'm thinking double-O is what I'm thinking.
BAER: No. They gave you just dumb names. You know where they got them from?
BAER: They got them from a Melbourne telephone directory, an old one from, like, '36. They thumb through it, and they say, here, how would you like to be this guy?
POUNDSTONE: Crocodile Dundee?
SAGAL: I wanted to ask you about "Syriana," that movie which in George Clooney plays a character who's not you but somewhat like you - was based on a book that you wrote about your adventures in the Middle East. And isn't it true that, like, George Clooney had to, like, gain all this weight to play you?
BAER: It was - the whole thing was just very weird, and the director looked just like George Tenet, who was the director when I was there. George Tenet and I went to school together. And he never particularly liked me because I once ran him down in the library when I was on a motorcycle.
SAGAL: Wait a minute, you ran him down in the library?
BAER: At Georgetown University, yeah.
SAGAL: And you were on a motorcycle?
BAER: Yeah, and -
BABYLON: Who are you, the Fonz?
SAGAL: You were on a motorcycle in the library?
SAGAL: What happened to you - was there any consequences of riding your motorcycle in the library?
BAER: Well, see, that's like 20 years later, I see this guy in the White House who's working for Clinton - National Security Advisor for Intelligence, and he walks up to me and says, oh, I'll never forget you.
SAGAL: Well, Robert Baer, we are delighted to talk to you and could all day. But instead, we've asked you here to play a game we're calling...
BAER: All right, I'm ready.
SAGAL: Well, you've been tapping our phones all week, so you know we're going to ask you, Robert Baer, about bears. Answer two correctly, you win a prize for one of our listeners. Bill, who is Robert Baer playing for?
KURTIS: He is playing for Kristian Soerbom of Stockholm, Sweden.
SAGAL: All right. You ready to do this Robert?
BAER: Oh, God, I don't know.
SAGAL: Well, come on. You have all the intelligence assets of the United States behind you.
BAER: That's what worries me.
SAGAL: I know.
SAGAL: In 2010, a large bear raided the home of a New Hampshire family and took what before leaving - A, millions of dollars in negotiable bonds, B, a teddy bear, C, the owner's collection of Rickie Lee Jones' records complete on vinyl?
BAER: The record - he took the records.
SAGAL: No, the bear took the teddy bear. It's odd because, of course, bears like tiny little stuffed adorable humans. Next question - you still have two chances here. In 2011, a California family went outside to discover that a bear had done what - A, stolen their Toyota Prius, B, drunk the entire contents of their hot tub or C, eaten everything in the garden except for the arugula?
BAER: Oh, it didn't eat the arugula.
SAGAL: You think a bear would, like, turn up its nose at arugula?
BAER: Yeah, absolutely, sure.
POUNDSTONE: They do like good gas mileage.
SAGAL: They do. No, he stole their Prius.
SAGAL: The bear stole the Prius at 3:30 a.m...
BAER: Are you making this up?
SAGAL: No, I'm not. At 3:30 a.m., a California homeowner was awoken by this huge noise. And he woke up, and there's a black bear inside his Prius. And the Prius is rolling down the driveway because the bear has sort of attacked the inside trying to get out. And he's ripped up the gearbox, and it went into neutral. And now he's rolling down the driveway.
BAER: Well, I've got a Prius. It's easy to do.
SAGAL: There you go. Last question - you see if you can get this one right. Here we go. Sometimes a bear just doesn't want to do something harmless and borrow your car or take your teddy bear, it's coming after you. In 2010, a Montana woman successfully fought off a 200-pound black bear trying to attack her in her house by doing what - A, reading it her collected poetry, B, throwing a zucchini at it or C, attacking it with a bear claw pastry held in each hand?
BAER: The zucchini.
SAGAL: You're right, Robert. Yes, zucchini.
BAER: Victory, finally.
SAGAL: And we looked this up. It is worth reading to you all a portion of the news account of the incident. Quote, "the bear turned its full attention to the woman in the doorway. She retreated into the house and tried to close the door, but the bear stuck its head and part of its shoulder through the doorway. The woman held onto the door with her right hand. With her left, she reached behind and grabbed a 14-inch zucchini she had picked from her garden earlier. She threw the vegetable. It bopped the bruin on the top of its head, and the animal fled."
BAER: There we go.
SAGAL: There you go.
BAER: Anything can be used as a weapon.
SAGAL: Is that part of your CIA training?
SAGAL: Grab a zucchini, and be prepared to kill.
POUNDSTONE: The Saddam Hussein story would have gone totally different if you'd used...
BAER: If I had only used zucchini.
POUNDSTONE: Zucchini instead of tanks. You can sneak up on a man with a zucchini.
SAGAL: Bill, how did Robert Baer doing on our quiz?
KURTIS: Robert Baer did one 1 out of 3. And by the Langley scoreboard, that's a win.
SAGAL: By ours, though, sadly, it's not. However, we're very glad to talk to you, and we wish you luck with your new book which is called "The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws For Assassins." Robert Baer, thank you so much for joining us.
BAER: Thank you.
POUNDSTONE: Thanks, Robert.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SECRET AGENT MAN")
JOHNNY RIVERS: (Singing) Secret agent man, secret agent man.
SAGAL: When we come back, we go to space with astronaut Sunita Williams and then down the runway with fashionista Simon Doonan. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR.
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