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A Covert Affair: When CIA Agents Fall In Love

Former CIA operatives Robert and Dayna Baer met on the job and fell in love. They talk about their relationship and some of their assignments in The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story.


Other segments from the episode on March 7, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 7, 2011: Interview with Robert and Dayna Baer; Review of the DVD release of the film "The Sweet Smell of Success."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
A Covert Affair: When CIA Agents Fall In Love


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Being in the CIA is hard on a marriage. You can't talk openly to your spouse
about your work, and you're often far away from home. Robert and Dayna Baer
learned that in their first marriages. They met when they both worked for the
CIA and were on a mission in Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia.

At the time they were each married to other people. It was only later, when
Dayna and Robert were back at Langley, CIA headquarters, that they started
seeing each other. They decided to quit the CIA and marry. Robert was a CIA
operative who worked in the Middle East. His bestselling memoir, "See No Evil,"
inspired the film "Syriana," starring George Clooney.

Dana was a deep-cover agent trained as a shooter and bodyguard. She served in
some very dangerous places. Among the things she's not allowed to disclose is
how many years she worked for the agency.

Robert and Dayna Baer have co-authored a memoir called "The Company We Keep: A
Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story."

Dayna Baer, Robert Baer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tell us how you met, while on
assignment for the CIA in Sarajevo.

Ms. DAYNA BAER (Co-author, "The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life
Spy Story"): I was actually assigned to work for Bob as part of - I guess you
could call it a support team, technical sorts of activities. And I think we met
just as you usually sort of do in the CIA, just at some random restaurant next
to the river in Sarajevo.

And he was sitting there smoking a cigar with a bunch of locals. And I came in
and I was with another member of my team, and we sort of sat down, and that was
sort of the beginning of it.

GROSS: What were your first impressions of each other?

Ms. BAER: Well, I can - I thought he was a little bit on the crazy side. First
of all, you know, the last thing I would've done is gone and sit with locals.
That was something sort of that - just not supposed to do. You're supposed to
sort of stay anonymous and out of the way, and the fact that he was sitting
over there chatting in a local language with the locals, yeah, it was - I just
thought he was a little bit nutty.

Mr. ROBERT BAER (Co-author, "The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life
Spy Story"): I was - when in Sarajevo, I sort of made up my cover as I went
along, and I was posing as an arms dealer, and this wasn't approved by
Washington, but it seemed to work in Sarajevo in the middle of a civil war.

GROSS: And that's why you were talking to the locals?

Mr. BAER: Yeah, yeah, I talked to everybody. I used to go to the politicians.
I'd even pretended to, you know, to be looking for arms for them, for tanks and
anti-aircraft guns, and I got along well with them.

In Sarajevo you'd start drinking about 11:00 in the morning, and you just went
with the flow.

GROSS: What was the mission when you first met?

Mr. BAER: It was going after Hezbollah. They had targeted the chief of station
in Sarajevo for assassination, and our team, Dayna and I, went in to go after
them, to find out where their safehouses were, what they were up to, protect
the embassy and the station.

Ms. BAER: And my job was sort of supposed to do the tracking of that, technical

GROSS: And you say that the government in Bosnia was really a client of Iran?

Mr. BAER: Oh, absolutely. I mean they - the defense minister was an Iranian
asset. And so he was essentially reporting to Hezbollah. I mean, we knew this
for a fact.

I mean you have to keep in mind, in the early '90s it was the Iranians who were
supplying the weapons to the Bosnian Muslims. So they were very much beholden
to them.

GROSS: Now, Bob, I don't know how much of, like, an old-school male you are.
But what was your reaction seeing Dayna, a woman, as one of the people who was
going to be potentially a shooter or a bodyguard for you? Did you have any
reservations about that?

Mr. BAER: Not at all. I mean, the CIA by, you know, we're talking the '90s, you
know, it wasn't an all-male organization. And, you know, Dayna, she's very
modest about it, but women are actually more inconspicuous. She can go into a
restaurant, have a Glock in her perse. No one will notice her. If things go
bad, she can pull it out and, you know, extract whoever's there or do whatever
she has to. And it's harder for a single male to do that.

Dayna, you say once you've, like, shot the gun, once you've had to use a gun,
basically the assignment is over. The CIA wants you to never have to use it,
never leave any fingerprint...

Ms. BAER: Right, right.

GROSS: ...never use a gun. How often did you have to use a gun in your career?

Ms. BAER: You know, that's another thing I can't specifically say. I can...

GROSS: You mean because the CIA doesn't want you to say or because you lost

Ms. BAER: Right.

GROSS: The CIA doesn't want you to say it.

Ms. BAER: The CIA doesn't want you to say. And, you know, I can say there was -
there were plenty of times I was glad I had a weapon with me. But at the same
time, it's really - you know, carrying a weapon is not - it's not a comfortable
thing to do because you're constantly aware that you have it with you, and
you're constantly worried that you might get stopped, or you might get
searched, and anything like that can just stop your mission cold.

So you know, I carried it when it was required and when that's what the order
said. But personally and most everybody I worked with, you'd prefer not to if
you didn't have to.

Mr. BAER: Terry, look at this case. I'd like to just interject something. Look
at this case in Pakistan where - you know, people are starting to turn against
this guy, Ray Davis, who shot the two robbers.

You know, when you've got a Glock - and Dayna can tell you this better than I -
you empty it in a second and a half. You don't have time to decide whether the
guy's been hit, spun around. You don't - you want to knock the person down, and
this is muscle memory. And so we sympathize with this guy in Pakistan in a
large sense.

Ms. BAER: Yeah, your training is such that the second you see somebody else, as
we've heard or on the news in regards to the Pakistan case, somebody else
pointing a weapon at you, you're going to shoot back because it's basically you
or them. And your training is so intense in that regard that you probably don't
even have a chance to think about it.

So, you know, we have a lot of sympathy towards Ray Davis at this point.

GROSS: Well, since you brought him up, I mean he was contracted by the CIA, but
I mean he worked for a private contractor. The CIA has been outsourcing some of
its intelligence, and Ray Davis is an example of that. And what's your reaction
to the outsourcing of intelligence by the CIA?

Pakistan is very upset about all of this because the CIA officially isn't
supposed to be there because we're not officially at war with Pakistan. And
also, I think they're upset at the idea of operatives who aren't even
officially part of the CIA.

Mr. BAER: Well, you know, let me answer that one. I think this contracting
thing is absolutely a catastrophe because the way these countries look at it is
Ray Davis was a mercenary. He was working for money.

In their minds, they've got the shooting in Baghdad in which 17 Iraqis were
shot down for no reason at all. We just have to get away from this - this

And so, you know, I can see it from the Pakistani side. If you've got these
people making $1,000 a day running around Pakistan with weapons, shooting
people, and it's difficult to get the facts about what really happened in

So they're absolutely right in that sense. You know, we've got to get over
this. Dayna - I'll let her speak for herself – but you know, she was coming
through a system where it was a mentoring system, where she was judged every
day, where she'd spent her entire career inside the CIA. And the chances of an
unnecessary shooting are much more remote than with a contractor, who will come
in for a year or two.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Robert Baer and Dayna Baer.
They're now husband and wife. They met when they were both with the CIA. They
met in Sarajevo on assignment. And Bob Baer is the author of several
bestsellers, including the book that the George Clooney movie "Syriana" was
based on. He worked for the CIA from 1976 to 1997.

Dayna, who was trained as a shooter and bodyguard, was with the CIA for a bunch
of years, but we can't say exactly from when to when because she's not supposed
to say that. She was under deep cover, and I guess some of that deep cover
remains in effect.

Now they've co-authored a new book called "The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-
Wife True-Life Spy Story."

So you met while on assignment in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. How long did
it take until you actually started a relationship together?

Ms. BAER: Well, it was several months after we came back from Sarajevo. We ran
into each other again at headquarters. It's - you know, the CIA is a huge, big
place. And, you know, you're so - we were extremely busy while we were working.
The operation sort of ended badly. You know, I just thought never – probably
never see this guy again. He worked in a completely different area than I did.
It was remote that we'd ever get, you know, by - just by - get it sent to the
same place again.

So we did run into each other, just walking down the hallway at headquarters
several months after that and went to dinner and went on a ski trip to France,
and that was about it. After that, we were together from then on.

GROSS: So you know, you were both separated when you met. How difficult is it
to maintain a marriage when you're working for the CIA under cover, overseas,
going from one assignment to another? When you do come home, you can't talk
about your work with your spouse.

Ms. BAER: Oh, it's – you know, my - it's impossible. It's just really, really
hard on marriages. In my case, I was on a schedule where I traveled about every
- for six weeks I would be gone and then I would be home, if I was lucky, for a
week or so. And this went on for years.

And it's just - if you can't - if you can barely tell your spouse where you've
been or, you know, what you do or, you know, and you can't tell - the same
thing with family. You can barely tell them who you work for. You just really
lose that closeness, and it just - it makes it very, very difficult.

GROSS: Bob, you find the same thing?

Mr. BAER: Oh, I found it possible(ph). I mean, you know, I'll be frank. I lost
my family, you know, my extended family because I was away so long. I was an
alias, gone for years at a time. And they looked at it as in a sense a
repudiation of them. They said: Why'd you get up and leave and never called
home? And you come back, and they're just gone.

GROSS: So when you started seeing each other, and you were still employed by
the CIA, were there certain - well, I mean, what are the CIA rules about
agents, you know, having a relationship with each other?

Ms. BAER: You know, it's actually - in some ways it's encouraged because you -
you have somebody you can talk to about what you do. You can share things with
them. It's much easier to have a relationship with somebody that's inside the
CIA versus outside.

GROSS: Well, how much can you talk to them? I mean, if - like you were both in
the CIA. You'd worked on one mission together. But there were all these other
missions you didn't work on together. Could you tell each other about those

Ms. BAER: Yes, you can to some extent. You know, there's - you know, of course
there's this need-to-know policy, where you don't - you're not going to share
things that you know are specifically classified to the mission that you're
working on.

But it's also just an understanding of what the other person goes through. And
it's a shared - there's very much a culture in the CIA. And it's just when you
share that with somebody and you know what they can or can't say. It's easier
than somebody on the outside.

GROSS: Yeah, sometimes when people start seeing each other who work together,
they try to keep it secret for a while because they don't want everybody in the
office to know. Did you do that?

Ms. BAER: A little bit, to some extent.

Mr. BAER: We used good tradecraft.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAER: Car pickups, dead drops and the rest of it. You know, in the CIA they
say if you can't carry on an affair in secret, you're not worth your salt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is it that common that there's sayings about it?

Ms. BAER: Yeah.

Mr. BAER: Oh, absolutely. I mean the divorce rate there must be astronomical.
You know, they won't - that's a secret too, but I'm sure it is.

GROSS: Robert and Dayna Baer will be back in the second half of the show. Their
new memoir is called "The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy
Story." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Robert Baer and Dayna Baer.
They're married. They're both former CIA agents. She was under deep cover for
an unspecified number of years. She's not allowed to say how many. And Robert
Baer was in the CIA from '76 to '97. He's the author of several bestselling
books as well.

And their new book is called "The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life
Spy Story."

Dayna, I find the beginning of your life in the CIA very interesting, and I
think you're able to write about that perhaps a little more openly than about
some other things.

And you write about the training that you had for guns because you were trained
to be a shooter and a bodyguard. Had you ever held a gun before your CIA

Ms. BAER: Oh, gosh, I'd held a BB gun when I was a little kid, and that was it.

GROSS: So what was it like for you to get trained knowing someday you might
have to use this and shoot somebody? Nothing in your life, I think, had
actually prepared you for that?

Ms. BAER: No. No, nothing. But, you know, the training is really good. And you
know, it's repetitive, and it takes place over months. And, you know, it wasn't
anything I was ready for, but by the end of it, you're very, very comfortable
carrying a weapon.

GROSS: So in your training to be a bodyguard, what did you learn to look for in
other people?

Ms. BAER: You really learn to watch people's hands and watch people's eyes and
watch, you know, people. It's sort of a little bit like you do see in the
movies, watch people in the crowd, watch for anything unusual. It's really an
observation game in a lot of ways.

GROSS: Before your training as a bodyguard and shooter, you were assigned to
screen people who wanted to join the CIA. (Unintelligible) you had to call
previous employees and friends and family. But you said that the real gold
mines were the ex-spouses and ex-lovers. Really? Were they...

Ms. BAER: Oh, they're always willing to spill everything. Yes. It's - you know,
if you can find those people who are willing to talk, you really get a better
idea of your subject, of who your subject is. And you can gain a lot more
information about them and what their personality is like from those people
that are really close to them.

GROSS: So you would call somebody up and say: So you were John Doe's girlfriend
from 1990 to 1995. He's applied to be in the CIA. Tell us what kind of person
he is. Is that how the calls were?

Ms. BAER: Yes, and it's not that you'd really say he's applied to be in the
CIA, but he's being considered for a security clearance, which is essentially
what your - what my investigation was about.

So yes, yeah, you'd say: What are they like? You know, would you - you'd ask
them if they would recommend them to - for a position of trust with the U.S.
government. You'd ask them for any derogatory information, any positive
information. You just really try to get a complete picture of what the person's

GROSS: And people would tell you pretty nasty things?

Ms. BAER: Oh, yes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BAER: You know, it depends on the person. But - but sure, you know, it's a
skill to talk to people and see what they'll – what they'll tell you.

GROSS: While we're talking about previous assignments, Robert Baer, one of your
assignments in the CIA was to work with a group of people who were trying to
overthrow Gadhafi. Tell us a little bit about the assignment, to the extent
that you can, who you were working with, what year this was. I don't know if
you could say any of that.

Mr. BAER: This was - yeah, I can. This - Terry, this was in the mid-'80s. I was
assigned to Khartoum, Sudan, and I was told to take care of these people that
were going to get rid of Gadhafi.

And I didn't know much about them. I'd just gotten to Khartoum, and it was one
morning about 4:00 that there was pounding at my door, and my door was kicked

And it was these Libyans. They had beards and robes, and they were carrying
Kalashnikovs, and they rushed into my apartment, said, Save us, Gadhafi's going
to come murder us.

What had just happened was that their arms depot in Khartoum had been overrun.
A couple Milan missiles were taken. So while we were figuring out what to do
with these people, how to protect them, I sat with them all night, and what I
realized by the morning was that the Reagan administration, which was behind
this, was supporting the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood.

And these people described to me how they had tried to kill Gadhafi in 1984 at
Aziziya barracks and that none of this was coordinated with the CIA, but what
happened was that one morning they woke up and their leader said that he had
been visited by Allah and now was the time to kill Gadhafi.

And they commandeered four or five trash trucks and were going to ram them
through his front gate. They were so excited they jumped out of the trucks
before they were through the gate and there was a battle in Tripoli, and most
of them were killed.

And you know, it was funny because there's always been this accusation that
we've supported the Muslim Brotherhood, and I'm sitting there listening to
this. This conversation's all in Arabic, by the way, and I said: Oh my God, we
are supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

These are the same groups that are fighting and are in Benghazi right now and
that are fighting Gadhafi. You know, this is 30 years later.

GROSS: Did you think that the coup was going to succeed then? I guess it had
already failed...

BAER: You know, I just found the Libyan exiles to be totally unreliable. We
could never get any good intelligence out of them. They were - they were
mystics as well. They used to boil pages from the Quran, you know, boil ink off
and then drink it for inspiration. I mean it was that kind of, you know,
weirdness that just wasn't good for - we had no idea whether they could even
get to Gadhafi or the rest of it, and this was all politically driven by the
White House.

GROSS: Robert and Dayna Baer will be back in the second half of the show. Their
new memoir is called "The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy
Story." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with Robert and Dayna Baer.
They're former CIA agents who met while they were on assignment in Sarajevo
during the war in Bosnia. They've written a new memoir called “The Company We
Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story.” Robert Baer is also the author
of the CIA memoir, “See No Evil,” which inspired the film “Syriana” starring
George Clooney. He spends most of his career in the Middle East and North

Did you ever expect, when you were with the CIA, that there would be a pro-
democracy uprising in Egypt that would succeed in overthrowing Mubarak?

Mr. BAER: You want me to be frank?


Mr. BAER: Didn’t have a clue.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BAER: And neither did my Arab friends that have business there, and
Egyptians and the rest of it. I keep in good touch with them and this all came
as a total surprise - Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, what's going to happen in Saudi
Arabia, they all - these are people with investments that spend three or four
months of the year in Cairo and Tripoli and it came as a total surprise.

So, you know, I figure if the leadership in these countries didn't see it
coming, you know, we as Americans, why should we see it? So, you know, to blame
the CIA or blame the Obama administration is just silly.

GROSS: How come the CIA didn't see it?

Mr. BAER: You can't collect intelligence on ephemera of a Tunisian vendor
lighting himself on fire and sparking a revote. We were vaguely aware and have
been aware for a long time that if food prices continued to go up, demographic
problems and the rest of it, it's eventually going to crack. But, you know, the
way it did crack and how quickly, you just - it's a matter of intuition and you
cannot write up into which and send it to the White House in intelligence
reports. It just doesn't wash.

GROSS: Do you think that the CIA has good intelligence on the countries that
have had uprisings? I know that you say it's hard to have information on
ephemera, and like one of events that you couldn't predict, but several former
CIA agents have complained that we don't have enough on the ground operatives
who speak the languages in these countries.

Mr. BAER: Well, let me put it this way, Egyptian Arabic is peculiar, a peculiar
accent, and it's difficult to learn especially, you know, the familiar Arabic.
And it would take an officer two years of studying Arabic, three years on the
ground mastering Arabic, and about 10 years to get a grasp of a society like
Egypt. That's ideally what happens. You know, it's very difficult for someone
to devote a career of 20 years on a single country like Egypt, especially when
you've got two wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has just sucked
resources and people and mainly in support of the military and these two
countries. So the CIA is truly - the bench strength is very very thin. And you
can see what’s happened at this expertise - it's just been drawn away by these
two wars and, you know, how you get it back, it'll take years.

GROSS: So, we were talking earlier about how the CIA has a lot of, has
outsourced a lot of intelligence to private contractors. In your opinion, is
that making matters worse?

Mr. BAER: It makes matters a lot worse because the contractor’s intelligence,
you see, created by them, is thin gruel.

GROSS: Is there any pulling back, once we've headed in that direction, of
outsourcing intelligence?

Mr. BAER: We better pull it back or we could – corporatizing, you know,
inherently civil service functions is an enormous error. You know, we sort of
figured this out in the 19th century. I'm not sure why we can't figure it out
now. Look, the CIA, you know, my years it worked absolutely brilliantly in
several countries, in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon. I don't see that today. I
talk, a lot, to government people and they are a bit more confused than they
were back in those days. The CIA does work when it sticks to classical, you
know, espionage with human sources combined with the National Security Agency
intercepts and we can get a pretty good picture of what's happening. But it
there’s crises popping up all over the world and you're moving people around,
you know, from South America to Kabul and to Hong Kong or to China, and no one
speaks the language, we will be in a bubble that we’re going to really pay for,
simply not understanding the way the world works.

GROSS: Well, I just think of how overwhelming the job is for the CIA now. I
mean there's uprisings in the Middle East. We're still at war in Afghanistan.
We’re not pulled out, yet, of Iraq. Iraq is still in chaos. Bin Laden is still
at large, so is his, you know, his number two, al-Zawahiri. So there's trouble
in so many places and so much to keep track of. I mean I know that's a very
obvious statement.

Mr. BAER: I think, you know, we're just not, you know, the catch-up ball's not
even the word and we're just so far behind understanding these countries and
it's happening so fast. I mean you look at Lebanon, you know, it's owned by
Hezbollah now. It's a de facto government there. I mean it's not an allied
country any longer. You see the Iranians are benefiting this by default. The
Sunni world is falling apart. The Saudi royal family is, in a couple of weeks
now, is going really going to be under the gun in terms of street
demonstrations, according to what we’re reading in Facebook. So, you know, it's
going to take a big imagination to keep track of this.

GROSS: So, do you expect you're going to be surprised by Iran? And, you know,
there was a huge pro-democracy uprising that got put down by the government.
But now, you know, seeing the other uprisings or there might be another, do you
think something like that stands a chance of ever succeeding in Iran?

Mr. BAER: I think now, the street rising in Tehran, is a neocon fantasy. I
talked to people come of Tehran, it's not quite as bad as the exiles say. Yes,
the regime has repressed the street and this Green Revolution, but I think what
we're going to see in Iran is a much more stable state and we’re going to see
the Sunni elite as a failed ruling class and they're going to start collapsing
in the Arab Peninsula. I mean they've already started obviously, if you look at
Libya and what's happening in Yemen.

The Iranians are counting on the Sunni to fail, including Saudi Arabia. They
don't intend to press their advantages. They're just going to wait and take and
fill that vacuum, which is going to be, you know, because of the Sunni failure.

GROSS: So do you have divided enthusiasms now? Enthusiasm about pro-democracy
movements, but a certain amount of skepticism, that in the long run, this is
going to make Iran stronger?

Mr. BAER: I'm for these movements. There's been so much oppression, so much
corruption in the Middle East that I'm siding with the street, personally. I
mean these people have been crushed for a long time. Let them get their chance.
At the same time, you know, I'm optimistic. The Iranians, once they, they're
feeling more confident about their position in the world that they will back
away from their radicalism. They’ll see that the terrorism of Osama bin Laden,
and even Hezbollah's terrorism in the past, doesn't pay off, that they have to
sit and wait and be patient. I still believe, and I wrote a book about this,
they’re going to come to the negotiating table stronger but more reasonable.

GROSS: We're approaching the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and I'd like to hear if
you're both thinking that there might be a big dramatic terrorist act planned
because al-Qaida loves anniversaries, from what I understand.

Mr. BAER: I think, you know, Terry, that we’re fighting the last war. We're
fighting 9/11. While were looking for Osama bin Laden, this democratic uprising
has taken place in the Middle East. I think, at the same time, that Osama bin
Laden, or what's left of al-Qaida, would like to get back on the map, prove
they're relevant. So there's always a good possibility. But I think we should
all get over this, you know, telling people that al-Qaida’s coming, make them
afraid. At the end of the day, historically, it's an irrelevant movement, that
its day is done. But, yes, you're right, I think they will try something at
some point.

Ms. BAER: I agree. I just, I think we have to be vigilant and I just don't
think you could realistically think that they won't try.

GROSS: My guests are former CIA agents Robert and Dayna Baer. Their new memoir
is called “The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story.”

We’ll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guests are Robert and Dayna. And he was a
long-term CIA agent. He joined the CIA in ‘76, resigned in ‘97. Dayna was an
operative, a deep cover operative for several years. She's not a liberty to say
how many. They’ve co-authored a new book called “The Company We Keep: A
Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story.”

As we were discussing earlier, you met on a mission in Sarajevo. You started a
relationship with each other once you got back to CIA headquarters in Langley,
and you left the CIA.

Ms. BAER: Yes, we both did.

GROSS: You left the CIA at about the time that you started your relationship,

Ms. BAER: Yes. That’s correct.

GROSS: How hard is it to move on? For example, Bob, you write: in this business
we lie all the time, live with false identities. We suck the lifeblood out of
our sources, pillage our contacts. Every arrangement has a twist. Every favor
comes with an IOU.

So when you're used to operating with those kinds of ground rules and now
you're trying to, like, leave the CIA and start a real commitment to each other
- how can you leave a behavior behind like that?

Mr. BAER: Well, you know...

Ms. BAER: Writing.

Mr. BAER: was, you know, first of all it writing this book is a purgative
of, you know, it was great. A mean you're just telling it like it is, you know?
You know, we’d simply have to come out and say, you know, we worked in the CIA,
this is what we did, and we don't do it anymore and we don't use people
anymore, and we don’t have to worry about surveillance or ramming the car in
front of us. You have to deprogram yourself. You have to get out of the, you
know, get out of that cult.

Ms. BAER: At the same time, that becomes hard, because, especially – well,
first of all, we moved to Beirut right after we left the CIA - and especially
in that part of the world there’s that feeling of, you know, once in the CIA
always in. So it's hard to, although you might try to move on yourself, it's
the other people that are around you that still think you, you know, wondering
about your motivations and what you’re doing and why you're in their country.
And, you know, Bob kept a lot of contacts all over the world and I think, still
to this day, there's people that doubt that we’re not still working for the

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAER: You wouldn’t believe the people that call me up. The king of Bahrain
used to us in Silverton, Colorado looking for advice. We had the head of the
Bonanno family in Canada called me up.

GROSS: The crime family?

Mr. BAER: Yes, the crime family because he was about ready to go to jail for
this murder in New York and he thought maybe I had a good idea to keep him out.
We had Sly Stallone call us up...

GROSS: And what did you tell him? Wait. Wait.

Mr. BAER: Right.

GROSS: What did you tell Bonanno?

Mr. BAER: I told him there was nothing I could do for him.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BAER: I mean he’d killed three people in a social club in New York and was
being indicted for conspiracy. I mean, he wanted to go to the CIA and tell them
listen, if I don't go to jail I can tell you all sorts of thing about the way
the world works and I've got contacts. You know, who knows what he was going to
give up not to go to jail. But it's just, they couldn't believe that I wasn't,
you know, sort of in contact with the director, could call him up and say hey,
I've got a deal for you. You know, once you're out of the CIA they, you know,
especially me, they don't want to hear from me at all.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. BAER: Yeah. That is another, it's a difficulty about moving on because
you're basically you're in the CIA and it does become your family and you’re
traveling with people and you're closer to people because, like we talked about
before, you can talk about what you do and where you work and where you go. But
once you're out, you really lose that and it's cold turkey, because, you know,
nobody can talk to you anymore - nobody that's inside can talk to you anymore.

GROSS: Well, at least you had each other so that must have made it a lot

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAER: That’s the only, thank God it’s true. Otherwise you feel orphaned.
You really do.

GROSS: Sure. So was it hard to stop lying? Was it hard to tell people who you
really were? And Dayna, was it hard to stop looking at people's hands to see if
they had a gun or a knife or, you know, about to attack?

Ms. BAER: Yes, it's hard, you know, old habits it's, die hard. You really find
yourself stuck in those - a lot of those little idiosyncrasies like, you know,
sitting in the back of a restaurant so you can watch the door. And we had an
incident where somebody called - somebody out of the blue call called Bob and
wanted to come and visit him in Silverton and I didn't want - we didn't know
who this person was and I didn't want to meet him - for Bob to meet this person
alone and so I made them meet in a crowded restaurant and I, you know,
clandestinely put myself behind the bar so I could keep an eye on it. It's just
those little things that you, you know, they become habit.

Mr. BAER: Or well, when we drive, if somebody stops abruptly in front of us I
always look for where I'm going to ram the car, especially if they start to get
out of their car, you know.

Ms. BAER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You’ve never actually (unintelligible), have you?

Ms. BAER: Or you make sure...

GROSS: Like got out the car?

Mr. BAER: Oh, well, they trained us. You know, car starts abruptly...

GROSS: Oh boy.

Mr. BAER: hit the bumper in a certain place, you wait until people put
their feet on the ground so they get knocked down. I could see it's going to
happen to me one day with the police, you know, an unmarked car is going to
stop in front of me and there goes Bob Baer to jail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You...

Mr. BAER: Those are the kinds of habits you can't give up.

GROSS: Right. Now you had all these like underworld contacts and terrorist
contacts and so on. So did any of them try to make deals with you when you got
out of the CIA – business deals or any other kinds of deals?

Mr. BAER: All the time, and we don't have a clue how to make money and we don't
know what they're talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAER: And billionaires come to us and they've got some wild proposal and it
makes no sense at all. Because we were civil servants. We worked for the
American people. We got a fixed salary and that's the way the world looked, you
know, you got whatever, $1,200 every two weeks, you know, and that's all we
could understand.

Ms. BAER: I think that works different in other countries too because they see
- other countries see their own government employees as the ones that actually
go out and make big business deals after they leave their governments and...

Mr. BAER: Or while they’re in.

Ms. BAER: Right. So they look at us like, you know, what do you mean you can't,
you know, get us a deal with Lockheed or something like that? They think we're
a lot more connected than we are.

Mr. BAER: Yeah, Or there are other people - what normally happens is they call
us because they want us to be involved in some coup d'état...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAER: know, equatorial candidate or just crazy stuff.

Ms. BAER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Like you'd be really helpful to them with that.

Mr. BAER: Exactly. You know, we would assure that it would go wrong.

GROSS: So, I want to bring up the fact that you adopted a baby a couple of
years ago.

Ms. BAER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you knew that you wanted to try to adopt a baby from the part of the
world that you worked in. Yes?

Ms. BAER: Mm-hmm. Yes. Yes.

GROSS: So how did you go about it? I mean adopting a baby is always hard.

Ms. BAER: Oh, exactly. It’s hard and it's difficult and it's only getting more
so. We, you know, it's basically a lot of research into where could we adopt
from? Where could we adopt from? We, like you said, we wanted to do it from
someplace we've been to and someplace that we'd hoped we’d go back to
eventually. And so it's a matter of, you know, where can you do it? We also
wanted to do it independently without an agency because maybe naïvely we
thought we had enough contacts that it wouldn't be that difficult.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BAER: So it was just a lot of research into where could it be done, first
of all.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So what's it like for you to be the mother of a young daughter?
Your daughter is two or three now, I think?

Ms. BAER: She’s three and a half. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. BAER: You know, I can - it's just wonderful. It's joyous. It's wonderful.
She's just a delight. It's strange to become a family, become three of us
because Bob and I were together for quite a while, just the two of us. It's
hard at the same time to be a mom, an older mom, you know, but I can't say
enough good things about it.

GROSS: Bob, you had three children with your first, your first wife.

Mr. BAER: I had three children.

GROSS: And you're gone most of the time because you were on assignment for the

Mr. BAER: I was gone the entire time. I was in Beirut. I was in Khartoum. I was
in Iraq. I was gone. It was convenient to say that I was doing something very
important and they would understand one day and I probably wasn't doing all
that much that made a difference, but the way they looked at it, they just,
they don't forgive you.

GROSS: So is this like a second chance for you to be a father?

Mr. BAER: Absolutely a second chance.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BAER: Yeah. And I was worrying about myself, but now it's working.

GROSS: Do you still have a certain yearning for adventure that you have to
fulfill in your daily life?

Ms. BAER: I think so. It's sort of grabs a hold of you. I, you know, we ski, we
do a lot of backcountry skiing and we took up ice hockey and Bob does some ice
climbing. And yes, yes, you...

Mr. BAER: We race avalanches in the winter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.

Mr. BAER: Thanks. It was great.

Ms. BAER: Thank you.

GROSS: Robert and Dayna Baer wrote the new book “The Company We Keep: A
Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story.” You can read a excerpt on our website,

Coming up, John Powers reviews a digitally restored DVD and Blu-ray edition of
the 1957 film “Sweet Smell of Success,” starring Burt Lancaster as a corrupt
gossip columnist and Tony Curtis as a press agent.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'Sweet Smell Of Success': Gossip With A Cutting Edge


The 1950s were notorious for being conformist and passive. And movies like
“Sunset Boulevard,” “Ace in the Hole” and “A Face in the Crowd” told bleak,
even cynical stories about the increasingly powerful mass media.

One of the most enduringly popular of these movies is “Sweet Smell of Success,”
a 1957 potboiler about the gossip industry, starring Burt Lancaster as a
columnist and Tony Curtis as a scheming press agent. It's been digitally
restored on DVD and Blu-ray and released by Criterion.

Our critic-at-large John Powers just watched it and says that the movie left
him thinking as much about today as the Eisenhower era.

JOHN POWERS: Back in my high school library, there was a poster that quoted the
famous words by Eleanor Roosevelt: Small minds discuss people. Average minds
discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas.

I suspect that Roosevelt would be horrified by how small-minded American
culture has become. Where gossip was once an unsavory, if popular, corner of
the mass media, it's now so mainstream that Lindsay Lohan's DUI cases make the
front page, and to own TMZ would cost you a hundred million times more than the
dollar it cost Sidney Harman to purchase Newsweek.

All of which gives a special piquancy to the classic American movie about the
gossip trade, “Sweet Smell of Success,” first released in 1957 and now out on a
ravishing new digital transfer from Criterion. Fast, mean, and absolutely
gripping, Alexander Mackendrick's movie - written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford
Odets - feels both extraordinarily relevant and, at times, strikingly old

Tony Curtis stars as Sidney Falco, a hustling press agent who to get his
clients' names in the papers runs around town for J.J. Hunsecker, a powerful
and sadistic Broadway columnist who spends his nights sitting like a spider at
nightclub tables. Things come to a head when Hunsecker demands that Falco break
up the romance between Hunsecker's adored sister, played by Susan Harrison, and
a jazz musician played by Martin Milner. Sidney proceeds to do this by any
means necessary, even pimping out a girlfriend.

Now, the movie's not perfect. For instance, the straight-arrow Milner is
comically wrong as a hip '50s jazzman. He already seems like the cop he'd later
play on the show “Adam-12.” But the flaws scarcely matter, because what's right
is so right, like James Wong Howe's bleakly poetic black-and-white photography
that makes even a fancy nightclub seem as soiled as a crime scene. “Sweet
Smell's” Manhattan is a seamy, deglamorized world in which small men destroy
lives to make themselves big.

At its center is the Apache dance between Burt Lancaster's bullying Hunsecker,
who lurks behind spectacles that are equal parts death ray and bulletproof
glass, and the ambitious Falco, who's like his pet dog - a rabid one.

Here, the two discuss Falco scheme against the jazzman, leaving Hunsecker to
ask a question about his sister's suitor.

(Soundbite of movie, “Sweet Smell of Success”)

Mr. BURT LANCASTER (Actor): (as J.J. Hunsecker) What does this boy got that
Susie likes?

Mr. TONY CURTIS (Actor): (as Sidney Falco) Integrity. Acute. Like indigestion.

Mr. LANCASTER: (as J.J. Hunsecker) What does this mean, integrity?

Mr. CURTIS: (as Sidney Falco) A pocket full of firecrackers waiting for a
match. You know, it's a new wrinkle. To tell you the truth, I never thought I'd
make a killing on some guy's integrity.

Mr. LANCASTER: (as J.J. Hunsecker) I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a
cookie full of arsenic.

POWERS: The figure of Hunsecker was based on gossip king Walter Winchell. And
as Neal Gabler points out in one of the disc's extras, Winchell was the first
to grasp - and exploit - the democratizing power of mass media gossip, which
not only brought the famous into the daily view of the millions but cut them
down to size.

If anything about “Sweet Smell of Success” feels dated, it's precisely the
notion of a single all-powerful columnist. The world Winchell created has grown
ever more democratic; gossipmongers are now as inescapable as people staring at
their smartphones. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube - which recently
brought down designer John Galliano by capturing his anti-Semitic blather -
anybody can be J.J. Hunsecker, which means that nobody is.

After all, who needs a Winchell when a teen idol like “Twilight's” Robert
Pattinson enters a restaurant and other diners instantly start Tweeting where
to find him? These days the press agent's job is often less about getting
clients noticed - heck, there are people who spend their lives writing about
reality TV stars - than about trying to control how they're noticed. It's a
near-impossible task, especially if your client is Charlie Sheen.

In fact, today's gossip machine is even more amoral than in Winchell's day.
Although a truly rotten human being, Winchell actually did believe in
something: He backed the New Deal, attacked Hitler when most politicians were
still weaseling and he fought for civil rights. Even when he went bonkers for
Joe McCarthy, he thought he was fighting for the American Way. Today's gossip
mavens seem dinky and soulless by comparison. TMZ and Gawker don't give a hoot
about politics or human rights. They have no mandate grander than getting the
poop on anyone who might be remotely famous.

Still, even as the gossip biz has grown more ruthlessly ubiquitous, our movies
have become tamer. Made during the supposedly square 1950s, “Sweet Smell of
Success” is a portrait of American ambition so curdled that it makes “The
Social Network” - a movie considered too hip, dark, and ironic to win the Oscar
- seem almost sunny. I mean, Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg may burn to
succeed, but nobody would ever call him a cookie full of arsenic.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and You can download
podcasts of our show on our website,

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, as unionized public employees fight to keep
collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and several other states, we talk
about the history of collective bargaining with Philip Dray, author of “There
is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America.”

Join us for the next FRESH AIR.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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