BOOK REVIEW: 'The Company We Keep': Husband, Wife CIA Operatives Reveal How Real Life Spies Function

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Company We Keep': Husband, Wife CIA Operatives Reveal How Real Life Spies Function
If you suspect that TV spy shows like "Covert Affairs," and "Burn Notice" don't tell the real story of spies, you might want to pick up a copy of "The Company We Keep: A Husband and Wife True-Life Spy Story" *(Crown, 320 pages, $26.00) by Robert Baer and Dayna Baer.

As a working journalist, I know that shows about print journalists are full of errors, so I suspect that the above two USA Channel shows -- favorites of mine -- are doing likewise. There is a husband and wife team in "Covert Affairs," played by Peter Gallagher and Kari Matchett, but I doubt that they were inspired by the lives of Robert and Dayna Baer.

Baer's book "See No Evil" was the inspiration for the George Clooney movie "Syriana," so the 59-year-old native Californian knows what happens when a book is translated to the big screen. I'd like to see a series based on "The Company We Keep." It would include comic elements, like the way Bob Baer and Dayna Williamson met in Sarajevo, Bosnia, as war raged in the Balkans. It wasn't quite the "cute meet" that TV and movies love so much, but it has a comic "McGuffin," in the form of a bright green English station wagon -- a Vauxhall --  plastered with advertising slogans. Bob Baer had borrowed the vehicle from a friend in a place where rental cars were scarce.


Dayna, trained at the CIA "farm" in Virginia with weapons of all kinds and the kind of driver training spies need in the protective service branch she was assigned, writes that the car stood out like an ice cream truck. Ideally, a spy's vehicle should be nondescript, preferably brown and covered with dust. Bob, Dayna and their colleagues were in Bosnia to spy on the Hezbollah, allies of the Bosnian Muslims.
Robert and Dayna Baer
Robert and Dayna Baer


There was a tiny spark, with Bob's marriage coming to an end, and Dayna's too in a shaky state, in this book where the authors alternate chapters. When they met again at CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, the relationship began in earnest.


Robert Baer, born in Los Angeles in 1952,  was known inside the Agency as perhaps the best operative working the Middle East. Over several decades he served everywhere from Iraq to New Delhi and racked up such an impressive list of accomplishments that he was eventually awarded the Career Intelligence Medal. 


In contrast to his career, which was everything a spy might aspire to, his personal life was a shambles. He rarely saw his wife and children, who lived in their home in Corgoloin, France. Baer had few enduring non-work friendships, only contacts and acquaintances. The absences as he went about his work  in places like Lebanon and Tajikistan contributed to the deterioration of his marriage. I've often wondered why the Agency hires married people in the first place, since the work contributes to divorces.


Dayna Williamson, who grew up in Corona del Mar, next to Newport Beach in Orange County, California,  thought of herself as just an ordinary California girl. Living in the most expensive part of Orange County, she was financially successful. Still, she was always looking to get closer to the edge. She was missing something in her too settled life.


 When she joined the CIA, her first assignment was doing background checks on people applying for posts with the  Agency, a job that was boring beyond belief.  When her boss, the woman in charge of the Los Angeles CIA office, asked her if she wanted to move to Virginia for further field training, she discussed it with her husband, a circuit court judge, who said to accept it. "I can always visit, can't I?" he told her. This was what most of her male colleagues joined the Company for, so she accepted the transfer, hoping it would get her to her "edge."

  Although she had only fired a pistol in her brief training at the "Farm,"  Dayna, a UC-Berkeley graduate,  quickly distinguished herself as someone who could thrive in the field, and she was eventually assigned to “Protective Operations” training where she learned to handle weapons and explosives and conduct high-speed escape and evasion. Serving in some of the world's most dangerous places, Dayna discovered an inner strength and resourcefulness she'd never known — but she also came to see that the spy life exacts a heavy toll.  Her marriage came to an, her parents grew distant, and she lost touch with friends.


When they left the CIA, the couple didn’t realize at first that turning in their Agency I.D. cards would not be enough to put their covert past behind.  The fact was, their clandestine relationships remained.  Living as “civilians” in conflict-ridden Beirut, they fielded assassination proposals, met with Arab sheiks, wily oil tycoons, terrorists, and assorted outlaws – and came perilously close to dying.  But even then they couldn’t know that their most formidable challenge lay ahead.


The saga of Bob and Dayna's adoption of a Pakistani Christian girl is worth the price of the book, which I recommend for anyone interested in spying. If you long for a job with the Agency, or similar outfits, be careful what you wish for!



About the authors

ROBERT BAER is the author of three New York Times bestsellers involving the CIA:" See No Evil" (which was the basis for the acclaimed film “Syriana”), "Sleeping with the Devil", and "The Devil We Know." He has become one of the most authoritative voices on American intelligence and frequently appears as a media commentator. DAYNA BAER, before leaving the agency to settle down with Bob, was herself an accomplished CIA operative.
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