Friday, August 26, 2011

Do we ever know them?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, espionage

If you are a spy, of course you know other spies. If you are not, and you think you know a spy, think again. Nobody outside the espionage community finds out that a spy is a spy until after retirement or betrayal. I have two relatives who spent time in eastern European countries. Only after they retired from the service were they able to tell us a little about it. One was in electronic surveillance, and the other repaired nuclear weapons in a country in which we do not officially have any nuclear weapons.

Neither one was CIA; they were military. That is deep enough. The real spies, the overseas covert operatives, always have an innocuous occupation (journalist, aid worker, construction contractor) as a cover. Reading The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wive True-Life Spy Story by Robert Baer and Dayna Baer, I realized at the end I hadn't even found out much about what the cover was, for either of them.

These were not "James Bond" type spies; there aren't any of those. They were the next best thing. The two wrote alternate chapters of the book about their experiences, and you learn they were both into surveillance (though Dayna was the one with special weapons training, while Bob was a linguist, fluent in Arabic, and a deal maker). It became clear that the most valued skill in a covert operative is the ability to meet people. Cloak-and-dagger stuff is fine for dreaming about, but building networks of trusted people around your untrustworthy self is the crucial skill.

They met in Sarajevo, a place no sane non-spy would go during the Bosnian civil war. Because of this, it takes a pretty good cover occupation just to have a reason to be there. A number of the chapters involve getting in and out of countries where "nobody" is able to leave or enter. It all comes across as quite a lot of seat-of-the-pants navigation, with a stiff dollop of knowing the right people.

I don't know how long either Bob or Dayna worked for the CIA, though it was apparently quite a bit longer for Bob. This story is of their final few years, and is the love story of their falling for one another and leaving "The Company". The cover blurb hints that getting out of the CIA is not so easy. Actually, the problem is internal; Bob in particular was addicted to upheaval. The kind of deals he knows how to make involve people trying to hold on to power, or those trying to oust them. Eventually, he did better as a writer (he has three previous books in print).

The final few chapters relate their adoption of a Pakistani infant. They immediately follow a chapter that took place largely in Syria, which Bob opens with a quote from St. Paul about the bright light that felled him near Damascus. Bob came to a realization that settled him. Without it, he'd not have been ready for the adoption that followed. It is a happy circumstance when people grow in substantial ways, in spite of the fact that growing is typically painful. My best wishes to a couple who beat the odds, and have a good chance of enjoying a long retirement together.

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