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Saturday, April 16, 2011

An Interview With True-Life Husband and Wife Spies

An Interview With True-Life Husband and Wife Spies

by Kate Fridkis

Crown Publishing
It's a classic love story. A woman and a man meet in a war-torn country. They are both spies. The man doesn't even know the woman's real name, but they fall in love and make a wild, adventurous, globe-trotting, and somehow totally normal life together.

So maybe it's not a classic story, but it's a fantastic one, and Dayna and Robert Baer make it come to life in "The Company We Keep", their new book about life and love in the CIA.

Though this is the first book the couple has written together, Bob Baer 's memoir, "See No Evil", was adapted into the movie"Syriana", which starred George Clooney and Matt Damon. And no wonder-- He's kind of the superspy you might imagine if you tried to imagine a super spy (and I, of course, have tried). Dayna, much newer to the job, is just as ready for action. Flying across the world on a moment's notice? No problem.

Their friends have names like Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Hamad Al Thani and "the Black Prince." Their friends sometimes can't remember whether they spent $10 million on property in Maine or Colorado (what? Those American states all sound the same!). Dayna finds herself taking a princess lingerie shopping, and standing on guard in the hair salon behind a queen, one hand on her Glock.

Yet life in the CIA isn't all romance and international adventure, and the Baers find themselves struggling with some of the same issues that everyone faces when they decide to start a family. The Company We Keep puts a human face on the shadowy silhouette of that almost mythical figure: the international covert operative.

Want to know what it's like being a spy? MyDaily did. And we got to talk all about it with Dayna Baer. She was a lot less mysterious than anticipated. Maybe we should send the CIA an application?

MyDaily.com: So, we're all wondering, how much is being a spy like the movies? I've been watching Nikita way too much. Did you ever do anything like her, or like James Bond? 
Dayna Baer: You know, it's so funny because the book really, really well describes the reality of it. There's just some really boring and tedious moments and bureaucracy, and then there's some really exciting fun things. A lot of it is the training. You get trained to death, and then the times that you actually get to use your training are so few and far between. People always ask, did you ever kill anybody? No ... I never killed anybody. But yes, I carried a gun, and sometimes I was really happy that I had that gun on me.

So no incredibly sexy outfits?
I didn't wear a ninja suit and I didn't do any wheel kicking. But you do wear a lot of disguises, and sometimes it's a little like acting.

Did you get to make up your aliases, or characters, or were they assigned to you?
Some of them are made up, because you want to do something that you're really comfortable with. You think, "I'll be like my friend so and so." Or sometimes you use hobbies or things that you're interested in in real life. I had friends who were private pilots, so sometimes when they were working they'd say, "I'm a pilot," and like I said in the book, I'm from LA, so the movie industry's familiar to me, so I often said that I was a location scout. Because it's easy to be anywhere in the world with a camera, and everyone loves movies.

What inspired you both to write this book? Why did you write it as a team? 
Well, Bob's been a writer for a while, and he's always loved writing. I eventually went to law school, and all lawyers are frustrated writers -- I was really emotionally moved by our adoption, so that sort of spurred it on. I also sort of hoped that just by telling the reality of it, it reflects what it's like, because there are so many people and families who spend their whole lives in the CIA, and there are sacrifices along the way. And it's just a different life. There are lots of rewards but lots of sacrifices. Just because of the culture of the job. You can't say what you do. You can't share what you do. Especially case officers. They spend their lives overseas.

What about your family and friends? Did they know? 
Um...no. Not for a long time. Not until a long time after we'd already left the CIA.

So what did you tell people? 
My friends thought I worked for an international moving company. Because you have to explain why you're gone all the time. And my parents thought I worked as a civilian for the military.

Someone I was talking to said, "I must have a really whacked out family, because I could keep that secret from them." I think that on some level my parents knew that whatever I did there was some security to it. On some level they just knew not to ask.

What was your job description in the CIA? 
I was considered an operations officer. I have a feeling that that title has changed since then. I did support operations, which sounds really nebulous. I did security operations.

What about Bob?
Bob was known as a "case officer". They are actually the ones who go out and handle the people, like the foreign nationals that are doing the spying. They recruit them. If they want some sort of secret documents or something, they'd go out and find someone in a foreign country who could get that document for them.

As an operations officer, a lot of the time I was supporting the case officers. Bob would go some place and stay for two years. working in a country and making contacts, whereas I never went some place for two years, but I was constantly like, 6 weeks here, and then 6 weeks somewhere else.

What was your life like before the CIA? Did you fantasize about the glamorous life of a "international woman of mystery"? 
(Laughs)...No. I was in graduate school at UCLA and I was studying social welfare and working with gang kids, and it was all really different from my suburban upbringing. It was at that time that I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to work for the FBI or the CIA?" I saw the recruiting posters on campus. Like any graduate, I applied lots of places, and it just sort of -- all of a sudden the CIA called.

What was that like? 
You sort of know they're looking into you. I did an interview in LA and was flown to an interview in DC. It takes over a year because they have to do such a long background investigation. So you sort of know you're in the pipeline. And then one day they just call and say, "Hey, we're ready to hire you." I had a job by that time, I was working as a social worker, and I thought, "Why not?"

So Bob. He sounds kind of like the quintessential superspy. But you say in the book that it wasn't love at first sight. How did you resist? 
I just thought he was crazy when I first started working with him. I didn't know what his reputation was, but I realized after working with him for a while that he's so dedicated to what he was doing, and all his not playing by the rules and not playing it safe got him results...

It's also very attractive to have somebody that's so into what they're doing. So after a while I was just like, "Huh ...This guy's pretty interesting."

Can you give our readers a brief overview of where you were and what you were doing when you met Bob?
So we were in Sarajevo and he was managing an operation that was tracking Hizballah, and i was assigned to his operation. It was like, "OK Bob, here's your support." There was a team of us helping him. And the very first time I met him, we were at some restaurant at the river and he was smoking a cigar and hanging out with some locals, speaking the local language. He's a very friendly guy.

It was the end of a war, so there were no hotels. He had found this house that had extra rooms, and I had to move in there temporarily. Everyone asks if we had some sordid affair, but nothing happened between us romantically until we were back in the States. There was just no time for messin' around.

I love the way you put that. Even after you got back to the U.S. and left the CIA, you both ended up in Iraq, with ABC News. What was it like, being in Iraq right before US troops arrived?
Um ... it was scary. We were actually in the Middle East, we were going between Jordan and Syria, with ABC News, just waiting until it was safe enough to actually go. We had been asked to go in and wait out the war with some of Bob's tribal friends, and there were a lot of other journalists doing that.

I guess it didn't seem completely real to me, until the tribal people we were going to stay with -- their house was bombed and all the women and children and men we were going to stay with were killed. It really shook me, because they were people I had met and people Bob had known for years and years. So we did go in, but it was scary. You drive in a convoy. And you just don't know what's going to happen. We got there just as the statue of Saddam came down. We were driving around the country and you'd hear gunfire. But at that point all the news organizations were there. So safety in numbers.

What's life like now, living with your ex-spy husband and beautiful adopted daughter? Do you ever miss the adventure? Do you have any habits that you retained from life in The Company? 
I think we do. You're so used to get-up-and-go, to seeing a new place, having some new adventure. So it's hard to stay in one place. We have this run-down cabin in Colorado and this place in Berkeley. Bob stays very involved with political things and still keeps many, many connections overseas. He did a documentary on suicide bombers. And you know, we get our chance to get out--- but now we also have this little three-year-old girl. But that's all completely worth it. This is a different adventure, which I'm sure every parent would say!

That's great. 
She's skis. She skis on her own. And she plays ice-hockey and just goes everywhere with us.

And you always have something to talk about at dinner parties. 
It's always a topic of conversation. There's lot of things you can't talk about, though.

Speaking of that, did the CIA have to review and approve this book before publication? 
Oh yes. They did. That's their job. We worked with them a lot. To make sure there was nothing that was classified in it.

So what you're saying is that we didn't get the full story ... and we never will. 
Yeah ... probably.

We'll just have to wonder.
It's not like we know everything either. It's very compartmentalized. Just because you work there doesn't mean you know all the secrets. It's need to know and you only know the stuff you need to.

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