- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE COMPANY WE KEEP: A HUSBAND-AND-WIFE TRUE-LIFE SPY STORY
By Robert and Dayna Baer
Crown, $26, 305 pages

Dayna Williamson was bored silly both at work and home. A strikingly pretty Berkeley graduate born into an upper-crust family in Corona del Mar, Calif., she joined the CIA seeking adventure. Instead, she found herself relegated to an office in Los Angeles, tasked with boring personnel-security background interviews. Her marriage, to a municipal court judge whose main outside interest is golf, was stale.

Then comes a chance to go through the CIA’s six-month course for shooters and bodyguards assigned to protective operations. She accepts, even though she realizes that the separation likely will end her marriage. She finds herself at a secret training camp 90 minutes west of Washington, learning to fire weaponry ranging from Glocks to shotguns, and doing 80-mile-an-hour skid-turns. Her first assignment is a stint in Houston, guarding the queen and princess of an Arab royal family. Then she becomes part of a deep-cover team “that travels the globe, trying to stay out of trouble rather than get into it.”

In due course, she is ordered to fly into Croatia, where she meets an operative she knows only as “Bob.” She is not impressed. “I think Bob is joking when he points to the station wagon parked out front of Split airport, the one we’re about to drive into Sarajevo. It’s lime green with a tangerine Orangina painted down the side. … It just makes no sense to me, driving a billboard on wheels into a city the Serbs have been pounding with artillery and sniping at since the civil war started in 1992. Does he want to give them something to shoot at?” They barely speak during the five-hour drive.

Here commences one of the better insider accounts of life in the modern CIA that I have encountered. “Bob,” of course, is Robert Baer, known for years as one of the agency’s premier operators in the Middle East and elsewhere. Dayna is using the work name “Riley,” and they do not learn one another’s true identities for some time.

The story is told in chapters that alternate between each partner’s perspective. Their work alternates between tension and tedium, with danger ever-present. (A female officer with whom Dayna is paired on a surveillance of a Hezbollah safe house is critically wounded when the auto in which she is riding is ambushed.) Bob tries to stir up a coup in Iraq.

Given the nature of agency work, of course, anything approaching a “normal” life is impossible. And, inevitably, Dayna and Bob are drawn together. In the narrative, Dayna is the first to admit to an emotional attachment. At this point, there is no romantic involvement, so she is chagrined when a rich Middle East friend of Bob’s who insists that they stay at a hotel he owns books them into a single room. (They stay elsewhere.) “It dawns on me that Ali and his family must think I’m Bob’s mistress. … I can’t decide whether I’m embarrassed or not.” And this is when she learns that Bob is married and has three children, although his years of overseas assignments has estranged him from his family.

Their involvement becomes serious when they share a skiing jaunt in Switzerland and when they are reassigned to Washington, they set up house together and marry. (The timeline is murky, but both have divorced.)

As they settle into marriage, Dayna is offered a slot in the operations course at the Farm, the CIA’s training facility in rural Virginia. As she writes, “It’s the first step to becoming an operative, something I’ve dreamed about for a long time. Not only will a lot more jobs open up for me, but I’d be qualified to run informants, and even learn a third language.”

But she looks into the future. Bob’s career path means he is slated to become a chief of station. And under agency rules, a wife or husband cannot work under a spouse. “We’d be lucky to work in adjoining countries. Meanwhile, the pressure would be on me to take an overseas assignment apart from Bob. Soon enough, Bob and I would be leading separate lives.”

So they do the sensible thing and retire in 1997. Bob lines up a consulting contract with an Argentine oil company, and they settle in Beirut. One early deal was for the Argentines to sign an agreement with the Afghanistan Taliban to partner with Unocal and build a $1.9 billion pipeline between Turkmenistan and Pakistan. (The deal was aborted, which proved to be a blessing for the people who would have put up the money.)

In addition to his continuing consulting work, Bob wrote three books on the Middle East, all best-sellers; one was made into the movie “Syriana.” And the couple went into a Christian slum in Islamabad and adopted an infant daughter - the ultimate commitment to their lives together.

An updated edition of Joe Goulden’s book, “Spyspeak: The Dictionary of Espionage,” will be published by Dover Books this autumn.

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