Title: The Company We Keep
Author: Robert Baer
Baer, Robert (2011) and Dayna Baer. The Company We Keep: A Husband-And-Wife True-Life Spy Story. New York: Crown Publishers
- Baer, Robert.
- Baer, Dayna.
- United States. Central Intelligence Agency–Biography.
- Intelligence officers–United States–Biography.
- Spies–United States–Biography.
- Husband and wife–United States
Date Posted: May 5, 2017
Reviewed by David Rohde
In The Company We Keep, Robert and Dayna Baer tell the story of two failed marriages and one triumphant one.
The former C.I.A. officers describe why they chose to become spies, how they fell in love while working undercover and what drove them to leave “the life.” Along the way, they recount the adrenaline and tedium, the danger and deception, that mark a career in espionage.
Dayna, a Southern California native, recalls meeting Bob (as he is known throughout) on a covert assignment to track Hezbollah operatives in Bosnia during the 1990s. Smoking a cigar and boldly declaring of their targets, “We’ll pin ’em down like butterflies,” her future husband strikes her as “a little nutty.”
Bob, who is best known for his 2002 memoir, See No Evil, on which the movie “Syriana” was loosely based, is impressed by his future wife’s toughness and beauty. He tells a male colleague he could imagine her in “the turret of a Land Rover” manning a “30-cal” machine gun.
In alternating chapters, the two explain how they came to be seduced by spying—and ultimately disillusioned with it. While living in Corona del Mar, her hometown, and attending graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles, Dayna picked up a C.I.A. application at a job fair. She’d been working in an internship counseling gang members, but she’d also never lived outside the Golden State. Life felt “a little too scripted, too predictable,” she writes. C.I.A. work would be “intriguing, maybe even vital.” In her first job for the agency, though, she finds herself bored to death and stuck in Los Angeles traffic for hours each day. Instead of tracking foreign spies, she conducts background checks on C.I.A. applicants. “The real gold mines are ex-spouses and ex-lovers,” she writes dryly. “They’re more than happy to talk about their exes’ dirty secrets.”
Then one morning, Dayna learns she’s been invited to train as a “shooter”: “six months of grueling day-and-night drilling in pistols, shotguns, automatic weapons, hand-to-hand combat, high-speed driving, killing someone by shoving a pencil up through their hard palate.” Eager to leave Los Angeles even though it will mean essentially deserting her husband, a municipal court judge, Dayna heads east to train. Eventually, she joins a “deep cover” team, traveling the world and trying “never to leave a fingerprint behind.” When she is able to call home, she can’t use her real name or give her location. Her marriage disintegrates.
Bob’s story begins in Morocco in the early 1990s, when he’s a 15-year agency veteran. Early on, we learn that his own marriage is decaying, that he and his wife are going through a “dead spot,” although they “believe that with time and distance things will work out.” He’s an absent father to his three children, who live with their mother in France, as Bob is sent to remote corners of the globe.
“Somewhere along the way,” he became “addicted to political upheaval—civil wars, revolutions, coups d’état, armies on the move,” he writes. “There’s nothing more fascinating than seeing a house come down, and the fight to rebuild it.”
The comment is indicative of his bravado. While in Tajikistan, he uses a visit by his mother to charm a Russian spy, Yuri, whom he’s trying to turn into a double agent: “There’s nothing like a mother to close the distance between you and your quarry.” Over time Bob starts to feel genuine affection for Yuri, and he reunites with him in the United States. But when he arranges a meeting between the Russian and another C.I.A. official—the double agent Aldrich Ames—Ames betrays Yuri to his own K.G.B. handlers. Yuri, to Bob’s chagrin, is fired by the K.G.B., and his prospective friend becomes “just a throwaway in the deal.” The reader senses Bob’s view of himself and his work shift: “I’d used my own mother to try to recruit someone who might have been a friend—if I knew for certain what that means.”
Dayna’s description of jetting around the world on C.I.A. missions is also bleak. She rarely knows the result of her efforts. She doesn’t know the real names of her colleagues. She engages in deceit every day, lying to her parents about her work. “I wonder how grounded any of us really is,” she writes. “Aren’t we all some sort of phantom, not a whole lot different from the guy I’m eavesdropping on?”
Journalists, businesspeople and aid workers based abroad regularly interact with the local population. But spies fear that too much contact could blow their cover. Each day, they survey the populace for people willing to betray their nation for money. The result is a dark, isolated and cynical existence. “We suck the lifeblood out of our sources, pillage our contacts,” Bob writes. “Every arrangement has a twist; every favor comes with an I.O.U.”
One of Bob’s most chilling passages is not about buying an informant. It is a description of his final phone conversation with his estranged father. On his deathbed in a California hospital, Bob’s father asks to speak to his son by phone. Holding the receiver, the usually confident operative is at a loss for words. “‘I love you,’ I say. Although I barely know the man, that’s all I can think to say,” Bob writes. “It must be five minutes before the nurse comes back on the phone. ‘Your father’s been taken away.’ ”
The book brightens as the authors describe their blossoming relationship. After they retire from the C.I.A., Dayna attends law school, and Bob becomes a consultant and a writer. They also come to recognize their own faults.
After years of separation, Dayna’s father is closer to a woman he calls his “other daughter.” “I lied to myself for a long time that I didn’t have to be nearby to keep family bonds,” Dayna writes.
As for Bob, life on the road has made him a distant figure to his children. Even when he finally settles down, they choose to stay with their mother. “Nothing I did in my years in the C.I.A. added or subtracted from the mess out there,” he writes. “But . . . while I was trying to make sense of that mess, there was a mess brewing at home.”
And so over all, this is a cautionary tale. Those ambitious journalists, businesspeople and aid workers, as well as prospective spies, should take heed. “The Company We Keep” shows that the lure of adventure and intrigue—in any profession—can wreak irrevocable havoc on the relationships that truly matter.
 David Rhode, “The Spies Who Loved Each Other,” New York Times (March 18, 2011). David Rohde is an investigative reporter at The Times and a co-author, with Kristen Mulvihill, of A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping From Two Sides. A version of this review appears in print on March 20, 2011, on Page BR22 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “The Spies Who Loved Each Other”.
 Baer, Robert (2002). See No Evil: The True Story of A Ground Soldier in The CIA’s War on Terrorism. New York: Three Rivers Press