Covert pairings: Stories from a clandestine couple

Jeff Stein's Intelligence for thinking people
Monday, March 7, 2011

Robert Baer, whose CIA exploits and exasperations in the Middle East were immortalized in the 2005 George Clooney thriller "Syriana", has a new role: conjugal co-author.

"The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story," Baer's fifth book, is his first written with his wife, Dayna, a CIA security specialist. They met during a covert mission in Sarajevo in 1994.

Love blossomed - cautiously, of course.

"Truth is," Dayna Baer writes, "I think Bob's a little nutty."

"It's chick lit," Baer shrugs, via e-mail.

That's true, to a point. Like doing the dishes after dinner, the Baers alternate chapters, he writing one, she another, beginning with her evolution from "just a California girl, born into a comfortable lifestyle, looking for adventure and a way to serve her country," into a street operative in some of the world's hairiest neighborhoods.

As one advance review put it, "they describe their careers, . . . their romance, and the difficulty they have in establishing a balanced life outside the world of secret agents."

Their "world," of course, includes glamour spots such as Bosnia, Lebanon, Syria, Greece and Tajikistan.

But "Romancing the Stone" this is not. The Baers provide realistic, often gut-wrenching portraits of the clandestine life and its costs, emotional and personal, as things go wrong and friends die.

The personal is political for Bob, who offers some shrewd and timely insights into the failed dynamics of U.S. policies in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon, still the region's cockpit of intrigue despite the crises now roiling Egypt, Libya and beyond.

"The Sunni are a failed ruling class," he maintains. "Iran wins by default."

Since 2002 and his first book, "See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism," Baer, now 59 and Time magazine's intelligence columnist, has earned a reputation as one of the agency's most caustic, knowledgeable - and wistful - critics.

In the new book, it's no different.

" 'The Company We Keep,' " he says, "is pro-government service in the sense there's a big personal price to pay saving the world, and it's all the worse when it turns out you haven't saved nothin.' "

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