The War On Terrorism, Through The Eyes Of 3 Women At The CIA | KERA News

The War On Terrorism, Through The Eyes Of 3 Women At The CIA

Oct 16, 2019
Originally published on October 16, 2019 12:48 pm

Amaryllis Fox was about to start her senior year in college when the Sept. 11 attacks hit in 2001. The next day, she drove from Washington to New York to see the smoldering rubble. Just a few years later, she was an undercover CIA officer meeting extremists.

"One of the things I think we all forget is how incredibly young so many of the intelligence officers really are," Fox said in an interview with NPR. Her new book, Life Undercover: Coming Of Age In The CIA, was published Tuesday.

Tracy Walder was a sorority sister at the University of Southern California and a news junkie who joined the CIA just weeks after graduation in 2000. The terror attacks the following year accelerated her training.

"To be completely honest with you, I had been placed in the counterterrorism center not because I was spectacular, but because I was young. So a lot of us newbies were placed in the counterterrorism center," Walder said. Her book, The Unexpected Spy: From The CIA To The FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World's Most Notorious Terrorists, is set for release early next year.

These two women, along with a third, Nada Bakos, all have books that lay out in striking detail how they went about that secretive work in the years after al-Qaida struck.

Readers learn how to create an undercover identity as an art dealer. How to trade coded messages via a Starbucks gift card. And as Tracy Walder explains, it's not easy blending in when you're a young, blond American in the Middle East.

"Sometimes I would have to travel in the trunks of cars just because that was the way that it was. And I was going to stick out no matter what," she told NPR.

An infusion of new recruits

The war on terrorism marked a major shift for a spy agency long run by older white men who had specialized in Russia. After the 2001 attacks, the focus turned to radical Islam. The CIA scrambled to ramp up its counterterrorism operations, and this led to an infusion of new recruits, many of them women.

Nada Bakos' book, published in June, is called The Targeter: My Life In The CIA, Hunting Terrorists And Challenging The White House. The title is also her job description.

Her mission was to learn everything possible about extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a leader of the Iraq insurgency that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003.

"You're looking for information that you can act on," she said. "You give it to whatever action arm that we have at the time, and in my case, quite often it was special forces."

Zarqawi was ultimately killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2006 in Iraq.

Amaryllis Fox writes about making her way through the congested streets of Karachi, Pakistan, for a clandestine meeting with extremists. She's trying to learn about a possible attack. They wanted to discuss U.S. drone strikes that are killing civilians.

"There are electric moments walking into meetings," she said. "There are moments of intense drama that we associate with the war on terror, with the spy world."

Changes at CIA

This spy world now includes women in more prominent positions than ever before. Last year, Gina Haspel became the CIA's first female director. Just below her, three of the agency's five directorates are now headed by women.

"It's a great time to be a woman at the agency," Haspel said in April. "Setting aside my own position, the head of operations is a woman, the head of analysis is a woman, the head of science and technology is a woman. You might sense a conspiracy here."

The three authors don't see a conspiracy. They see a distinct skill set that many women bring.

"There was a gradual awakening to the idea that some of the traits that we tend to associate with feminine characteristics — intuition, emotional intelligence and multitasking — these are things that make really excellent operations officers," Amaryllis Fox said.

These books are also filled with frustrations.

Nada Bakos was on a team looking into possible links between al-Qaida and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"We really didn't find a connection between Iraq and any larger international terrorist organization that would have really posed a threat to the United States," Bakos said.

That was not what President George W. Bush's administration said as it launched the war against Iraq.

"There were moments in my career when I just wanted to go out into the street and yell exactly everything that I told the policymakers that they aren't telling the public. I mean, it's incredibly frustrating," Bakos added.

Going to war

Around the same time, Tracy Walder's team made poster-size graphics showing that Saddam Hussein likely did not have weapons of mass destruction. That material was sent to the White House, and it morphed into the poster that Secretary of State Colin Powell famously used at the United Nations to argue that Saddam did have such weapons.

"Obviously we were horrified," Walder said. "I do think part of that chart, along with the whole WMD case, was used sort of incorrectly as the impetus for the Iraq War."

Like all books by former CIA employees, these manuscripts had to be submitted to the agency for review.

Tracy Walder's book will include the blacked-out redactions made by the CIA. Nada Bakos filed a lawsuit against the CIA to get her book released. And the book by Amaryllis Fox recently caused a stir amid reports it had not been cleared for publication. But it was published as planned on Tuesday.

All three women left the agency by 2010 and have moved on with their lives.

Amaryllis Fox sometimes travels to Iraq to work with those scarred by violence. Nada Bakos is at a social media company in Seattle. Tracy Walder teaches a course called Spycraft at an all-girls school in Dallas. Some of her students have followed in her footsteps.

"Some of the girls I've had now work at State Department, the CIA, the FBI. They've gone to military colleges," she said.

In the compartmentalized world of the CIA, these three women say they've never met. If they ever do, they'll have a lot to talk about.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the CIA started scrambling to ramp up its counterterrorism operations. That included an infusion of young recruits, many of them women, into an agency long dominated by older men. Three women in the thick of this battle have now each written books about their secretive work, laying out the successes and the shortcomings of the war on terror. NPR's Greg Myre has their stories.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: When the September 11 attacks hit, Amaryllis Fox was about to start her senior year in college. The next day, she drove to New York to see the smoldering rubble and asked herself, what can I do? Just a few years later, she was an undercover CIA officer tracking extremists.

AMARYLLIS FOX: One of the things that I think we all forget is how incredibly young so many of the intelligence officers really are.

MYRE: Tracy Walder was a sorority sister at the University of Southern California and a news junkie who joined the CIA just weeks after graduation in 2000. The terror attacks the following year accelerated her training.

TRACY WALDER: To be completely honest with you, I had been placed in the Counterterrorism Center not because I was spectacular but because I was young. And so a lot of us sort of newbies were placed in the Counterterrorism Center.

MYRE: These two women, along with a third, Nada Bakos, all have new books that present in detail how they went about this work - like how to create an undercover identity as an art dealer or how to trade coded messages on a Starbucks gift card. And as Tracey Walder explains, it's not easy blending in as a young, blonde American in the Middle East.

WALDER: Sometimes I would have to travel in the trunks of cars just because that was the way that it was. And I was going to stick out no matter what.

MYRE: They all had distinct roles. Nada Bakos entitled her recently released book "The Targeter," which was also her job description. Her mission was to learn everything possible about extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a key leader in the Iraq insurgency.

NADA BAKOS: You're looking for information that you can act on. So you give it to whatever action arm that we have at the time, and in my case, quite often it was Special Forces.

MYRE: Zarqawi was ultimately killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2006. Amaryllis Fox writes in her book "Life Undercover" about making her way through the congested streets of Karachi, Pakistan, for a clandestine meeting with extremists. She's trying to learn about a possible attack; they want to discuss U.S. drone strikes that are killing civilians.

FOX: There are electric moments walking into meetings. There are moments of the intense drama that we associate with the war on terror, with the spy world.

MYRE: This war also marked a major shift for a spy agency run by older white men who had specialized in Russia. After September 11, the focus turned to radical Islam. Women were part of this rising generation. Last year, Gina Haspel became the CIA's first woman director. Here she is speaking this past April.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GINA HASPEL: It is a great time to be a woman at the agency. The head of operations is a woman. The head of analysis is a woman. The head of science and technology is a woman. You might sense a conspiracy here, but...

(LAUGHTER)

MYRE: The three women authors don't see a conspiracy; they see a skill set that many women bring. Again, Amaryllis Fox.

FOX: Some of the traits that we tend to associate with feminine characteristics - you know, intuition, emotional intelligence and to multitask - these are things that make really excellent operations officers.

MYRE: These books are also filled with frustrations. Nada Bakos was on a team looking into possible links between al-Qaida and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

BAKOS: We really didn't find a connection between Iraq and any, you know, larger international terrorist organization that would have really been a - posed a threat to the United States.

MYRE: Which was not what President George W. Bush's administration said when it launched the war against Iraq.

BAKOS: There were moments in my career when I just wanted to go out onto the street and yell exactly everything that I've told the policymaker that they aren't telling the public. I mean, it's incredibly frustrating.

MYRE: Around the same time, Tracy Walder's team made poster-sized graphics showing that Saddam likely did not have weapons of mass destruction. Yet that work was sent to the White House and later morphed into the poster that Secretary of State Colin Powell famously used at the United Nations to argue that Saddam did have such weapons.

WALDER: Obviously, we were horrified. What could we do about it, right? Wasn't much. But I do think that part of that chart, along with the whole WMD case, was used sort of incorrectly as the impetus for the Iraq War.

MYRE: Like all books by former CIA employees, the manuscripts had to be reviewed by the agency. The one by Amaryllis Fox recently caused a stir amid reports that it had not been cleared for publication, yet it was published as planned on Tuesday. All three women left the CIA by 2010 and have moved on with their lives. Amaryllis Fox sometimes travels to Iraq to work with those scarred by violence. Nada Bakos is at a social media company in Seattle. Tracy Walder, whose upcoming book is called "The Unexpected Spy," teaches a course called spycraft at an all-girl school in Dallas. Some students have followed in her footsteps.

WALDER: I've had girls now who work at State Department, CIA, FBI.

MYRE: In the compartmentalized world of the CIA, these three women say they've never met. If they ever do, they'll have a lot to talk about.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.