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February 15, 2011

A Real-Life Spy Couple

Robert Baer and Dayna Williamson hid their real identities and spent their lives trying to be invisible. Then they got married.

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Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox Film Corp/Everett

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They met on a work trip — to Sarajevo. He was a seasoned CIA agent, known for running operations in Iraq. She was a rising star in the CIA, an expert shooter. Their mission in Sarajevo: Spy on Hezbollah operatives. When a fellow agent was shot, that mission came to an abrupt halt. But for Robert Baer and Dayna Williamson, a new pursuit took shape: love and marriage. Could their union survive the grueling, globetrotting nature of the CIA — or a more “normal” life outside the agency, minus the thrills? We talked to the authors of the new memoir The Company We Keep about their wild ride.

MC: How did you both wind up in the CIA?

Robert Baer: I was at loose ends. I’d just graduated from Georgetown and was studying Chinese at Berkeley. It was 1976, a tough job market. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, and I applied on a whim. It was a joke, really. When I actually got in, it’s like getting into a fancy nightclub: You’ve gotten past the velvet ropes, you might as well see what it’s like inside.

Dayna Baer: I applied in graduate school at UCLA — I was studying social welfare, and the CIA came to the campus to recruit. I’d never been anywhere, except to London; I’d never shot a gun. I just thought, Why not? It sounded like a great adventure. I got the job in 1991.

MC: What’s the wildest thing that happened on the job?

Robert: I once had an abscessed tooth while on assignment in Tajikistan. I learned that there wasn’t a dental X-ray machine in the entire city of Dushanbe. So a dentist improvised, with a wire cord and an electrical box on the wall. He said this “Soviet miracle” would fix my tooth. When the shock raced around my head, it did numb my face, but my tooth still hurt.

Dayna: Once in an elevator in Cypress, I ran into a guy I knew in college. He shouted “Dayna!” I panicked. I thought, Here’s someone who knows me from a different life, a different name. I told him I was there working on a film.

MC: Describe when you two first met, in Sarajevo.

Dayna: I thought Bob was nutty, out there. He drove a lime-green car with a tangerine “Orangina” painted on the side. It was like a billboard on wheels — when we were supposed to go unnoticed. I thought, Did he want to give people a target? In the CIA, you try to blend in. Whenever we would arrive in a new place, we’d find out: What’s the most common car? What’s everyone wearing? Anyway, there was no romance on that mission — we had to concentrate on the job. But we spent a lot of time together, sitting and waiting, doing surveillance. It’s not like I was some Femme Nikita. Usually I was trying to stay out of trouble.

Robert: I was attracted to her right away. But she was a subordinate — it was strictly a no-no to have an affair in such a situation. A few months later, though, when I ran into her at headquarters in D.C., I invited her to dinner. Then I asked her to go hiking with me in the Swiss Alps.

Dayna: I wasn’t sure if I should go. I hardly knew him. But I knew I was interested. He and I had both been married before, and it’s hard for relationships to survive when you’re in the CIA and your spouse isn’t — you can never tell anyone what you’re doing. So I went hiking with Bob in the Alps.

MC: As your relationship progressed, you had to decide whether to stick it out together in the CIA. Ultimately, you both decided to leave the agency. How hard was that?

Dayna: It wasn’t easy for me. I felt lost. I’d been with the CIA for only a handful of years. Bob had been there longer; he was seven years older than me. But we were talking about marriage, and it’s hard to get tandem husband-wife assignments. I knew that realistically, we could be separated for long periods of time, and I didn’t want that. I also knew that life with him would never be dull.

Robert: I was totally ready to leave the CIA. I wanted to do other things — not be confined to the bureaucracy. I wanted to live in Beirut, or go to Afghanistan and build a pipeline. Or go to Tahiti and be a painter. Or be a ski bum in Colorado! There were so many other worlds out there. The painful part was worrying about Dayna. She had opportunities to advance in the CIA. To ask a partner to give that up is scary.

MC: You didn’t exactly go the white-picket-fence route, first moving to Beirut and later going to Iraq to film a documentary during Saddam Hussein’s fall...

Robert: Well, I promised Dayna that life would never be boring!

MC: What are some job offers that have come your way since leaving the CIA?

Robert: Oh, the offers come in about once a week. They usually involve politics, assassinations, changing governments. When you live in a world of scofflaws, you get to know them all. There was a guy who wanted me to help with a takeover of Equatorial Guinea. I’ve got friends in Somalia who want to help me take out the pirate bases there. Then there was the guy who wanted me to help him spring Vito Rizzuto, the Mafia boss, from prison in Canada. Sylvester Stallone called me one day: He wanted to talk about his business problems.

MC: Now you live in Berkeley, writing and doing investigations for the UN. Robert, your 2002 memoir See No Evil became a film starring George Clooney: Syriana. What was it like meeting Clooney?

Robert: I’ve met a lot of swindlers, posers, and frauds in my life, and I can tell you that he is a genuinely good guy. I think it’s misery what he has to go through in his private life: How could he ever know if someone wants to marry him, or just wants the fame? When I met him at his place in Lake Cuomo, there were girls in the trees waiting for a glimpse of him. They were just hanging out there, in the tree limbs, like Christmas ornaments.

MC: What’s weirder, Hollywood or the CIA?

Robert: Hollywood. We went on the publicity junket for the movie, and when we landed in London, a Mercedes rolled up, along with a separate van for our luggage. I said, “Is someone else coming?” We had round-the-clock service, a minder, private jets, a person whose job it was to hold my cellphone.

MC: Now you live in Berkeley, with a home in Colorado. A couple years ago, you decided to try to adopt a baby from Pakistan. How did that go?

Dayna: When we decided to adopt, I started looking at Pakistan because it’s one of the most exotic places I’d ever seen, especially Peshawar, the frontier outpost at the bottom of the Khyber Pass. There were plenty of hurdles for our adoption plan. For one, abandoned children are considered Muslim there, and Christians cannot adopt a Muslim child. We worked all our contacts, and eventually found an abandoned Christian baby. But to get guardianship, we had to go before a judge — a Taliban judge — and tell him we had worked for the CIA. He ruled against us. Later, in an appeals court, we won. The mechanics of it all will forever remain a mystery. But now we have our daughter, Khyber.


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