Book World: Robert and Dayna Baer's 'true-life spy story,' 'The Company We Keep'

Robert and Dayna Baer
Robert and Dayna Baer
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By Joseph Kanon
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 11:35 AM

"THE COMPANY WE KEEP: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story." By Robert Baer and Dayna Baer. (Crown. 305 pp. $26)

Opposites don't always attract. More often, like goes to like. Bob Baer was a near-legendary CIA operative in the Middle East (later awarded a Career Intelligence Medal) with a reputation as a daredevil. Dayna Williamson was a rising agent in Protective Operations whose training (entertainingly described here) involved Glocks and shotguns, high-speed driving and how to kill someone "by shoving a pencil up through their hard palate." When they were both assigned to a mission in war-torn Sarajevo, sparks didn't fly immediately - for one thing, there was a Hezbollah safe house to monitor and, for another, they were both married - but in this affectionate dual memoir, they are so clearly made for each other that it was only a matter of time. A drive along the French Riviera, some hiking in the Swiss Alps - one thing led to another. Can one find true love in the CIA? Apparently, yes.

"The Company We Keep" is a breezy, often fascinating account of this CIA romance, with tradecraft details and war stories thrown in to make it catnip for any fan of espionage fiction. Here, in fact, is the CIA that inspired such fiction in the first place - not the Langley bureaucrats waiting out their pension time, but the risk-takers out on the edge. It's the kind of book that lends itself to casting the movie version as you read it. George Clooney has already played Bob ("Syriana" was based on Robert Baer's memoir "See No Evil"), and you can't do better than that. Dayna, reloading her Glock at 80 mph, is inevitably Angelina Jolie. And surely a star turn could be made out of Bob's irrepressible mother, Donna (she visits him on assignment in Tajikistan just to see it), if, say, Meryl Streep could be coaxed to play her. The cameo parts - informants and Arab sheiks and Russian mobsters - are a gold mine for character actors.

The fieldwork here is heady stuff, and "The Company We Keep" makes the most of it, but the back story is the emotional cost - the estranged families, the friends left behind, the secrecy and months of separation. Both Baers had seen their first marriages crack under the stresses and were determined to make this one work. The obvious solution was to leave the agency in 1997 for civilian life. But how do you come in from the cold? The company the Baers kept, that clandestine world of ops and assassins and louche hangers-on, is the only one they had known - rebooting in Beirut didn't help either - and the second, even more interesting part of the book is about how they navigated their way back.

Eventually Bob became a best-selling author (and frequent media commentator), and the Baers settled in the United States and started a family. But initially they found they had left the CIA only to bring it with them - the same shadowy world, the same operational instincts, the same occasional danger. Material is elided or hurried over; there are iffy consulting jobs (an Argentine oil company wanting to build a pipeline through Afghanistan); old contacts who refuse to believe that the Baers have really left the game; and even assassination proposals (turned down). Meanwhile, the book features so many characters up to no good that at times the entire Middle East seems like Somerset Maugham's famous description of the Riviera: "a sunny place for shady people."

That the Baers coaxed a happy ending out of all this is not the least remarkable part of their appealing story, and hats off to them. But now one can't help wondering about other retired spooks and what company they're keeping these days.

Kanon is the author of "The Prodigal Spy" and, most recently, "Stardust."

THE COMPANY WE KEEP

: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story.

By Robert Baer and Dayna Baer.

Crown. 305 pp. $26


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