Bob Davis: Love and spying — One former CIA agent’s chaotic tour of Middle East
Mar 27, 2011 | 3089 views |  4 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bob Baer is whispering in my ear. The writings of a former Central Intelligence Agency official with a knack for smart analysis of the Middle East are keeping me up nights, wondering who or what follows the Arab tyrants facing the wrath of their citizens.

The chaos of 2011 is unsettling. The known is often more comfortable than the unknown. We can see how Washington’s realists, while never condoning harsh and bloody tactics of despots, accepted the familiarity provided by Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

New leadership holds risks and rewards. The world would celebrate the departure of the petro-despots who lived it up on oil revenues while neglecting the education and welfare of their own people. But then what? A replacement that plays with terrorists is no better. Reformers looking to create secular governments will struggle in a region where democratic foundations are scarce.

Baer is a perfect choice to see the nuances and difficulties of the Middle East. A CIA case officer for more than 20 years, Baer hunted terrorists in Beirut, chased Hezbollah around war-torn Sarajevo and organized anti-Saddam Hussein forces in northern Iraq during the mid-1990s.

Baer’s 2002 memoir, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, was written while the 9/11 attacks were still fresh on the national conscience. “See No Evil” was in many ways a warning to the U.S. intelligence network: Learn from the surprise attacks that killed 3,000 on Sept. 11, 2001, or prepare for more of the same.

“We didn’t have the intelligence we needed or the means for gathering it,” Baer writes, adding, “The way to start is by putting CIA officers back on the street, by letting them recruit and run sources in the mosques, the casbahs, or anywhere else we can learn what the bad guys’ intentions are before they break into horrible headlines and unbearable film footage.”

Baer writes that the 21st-century CIA isn’t the organization he joined in the 1970s. “Satellites and intercepts can’t see inside someone’s head. You need a person to do that,” is how a CIA recruiter put it to a young Baer. He was taught that CIA case officers needed to be on the streets, speaking the native language, observing the fine details of a nation’s politics and culture, and working deep-cover sources to find reliable information. A satellite photo from 90 miles up can’t get it done.

Problem is, an “incensed” Baer writes, the “CIA was destroyed by political correctness, by petty Beltway wars, by careerism and much more.”

And, 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, how is the CIA holding up? He says U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have depleted resources that “it’ll take years” to replenish. “The bench strength is very, very thin,” he said earlier this month on NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross.”

Missing the Arab dominoes falling, from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Libya, can’t be blamed on the CIA, however. Baer doesn’t fault anyone for not forecasting the Arab Spring, saying the CIA missed it just like Egyptian businessmen and everyone else. “We’re just so far behind understanding these countries and it’s happening so fast,” he said on “Fresh Air.” “It’s going to take a big imagination to keep track of this.”

In Libya last week, it was too late for subtle covert information gathering. Artillery from U.S., British, French and other Western armies was raining down on forces loyal to Gadhafi. The action was taken under a U.N. Security Council order to protect the rebels seeking to unseat the Libyan dictator.

The lasting impact of the campaign, however, remained in doubt at the end of last week. Visible support from the 22 members of the Arab League is scant, with only Qatar lending a hand in enforcing the Libyan no-fly zone.

The best small hope came via Baer’s latest book, one he co-authored with his wife, The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story.

Bob Baer met Dayna Baer in the 1990s when both were working for the CIA in Sarajevo. He was a top-notch case officer and she was a security expert, trained in every type of weaponry imaginable. Both were soon to see their first marriages crumble into dust. A friendship developed over time, and when both were back in the United States, something more blossomed.

They both left the CIA. He became a writer and consultant. She went to law school. The Company We Keep is a fast-

paced tour through their service in the CIA — the constant worry over being exposed, the poker-faced game of trying to discern the real intentions of would-be spies and the evasive techniques to ensure you are not being tailed. They also describe lives of isolation, of estrangement from spouses, children and parents, owing to the nature of their secretive work.

The final chapters of The Company We Keep are dedicated to the Baers’ efforts to adopt a child from Pakistan.

After months of searching, they discover a 10-month-old girl whose mother died following complications of childbirth and whose poor father was struggling to provide for seven other children. Their descriptions of the trials of adopting are almost as tense as their accounts of being menaced by bad guys in narrow streets of Third World countries. Americans — former CIA agents at that — trying to adopt in Pakistan was no cakewalk. Yet, it comes to pass when a Pakistan judge grants the adoption.

“I melt at every smile, every giggle, every little acknowledgment that she understands that we’re going to take care of her, feed her and love her,” Dayna writes of the little girl they decide to name Khyber.

It’s the happy ending we all need in this chaotic world.

Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at (256) 235-3540 or You can follow him on Twitter at:
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