The Unexpected Spy: From the CIA to the FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World’s Most Notorious Terrorists
By Tracy Walder | @tracy_walder
Tracy Walder is a former Staff Operations Officer (SOO) at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and a former Special Agent at the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office where she specialized in Chinese counterintelligence operations. She has also taught high-school history and government courses at Hockaday School in Dallas, Texas. Walder now sits on the Board of Directors for Girl Security, a non-profit group that brings national security curriculum to girls in high school throughout the US.
The Cipher Brief talked with her recently about her motivation for joining the CIA, the experiences she had working both at Langley and overseas, and what she’s taken away from it all. Our conversation has been edited for length.
UnderCover: Why don’t we just start at the beginning? The Unexpected Spy is a very intriguing title. How did you find yourself at the CIA?
Walder: I always wanted to be a high school history teacher really ever since seventh or eighth grade. I majored in history in college, but I was also exposed to travel from a young age. Really, the turning point for me was watching Peter Bergen’s interview in 1997 with Osama bin Laden. I’m Jewish and I think for me, when that interview came out, terrorism seemed sort of like this nebulous thing that didn’t affect my life really in any way. But when I heard him speaking about his hatred of the Jews, I couldn’t understand why he hated us so much and that kind of brought it to me and to my backyard. Very shortly thereafter, there was a shooting at a Jewish Community Center in North Ridge, California, which was really close to where I was at college. I think those two events really started to get me interested in understanding the Middle East. There was a career fair at my college, and I applied for the CIA there.
UnderCover: They’re usually looking for specific skillsets. What was it that they liked about you?
Walder: That’s an interesting question. I believe at the time, and I could be wrong, they were actually looking for history and English majors. I believe my recruiter told me that was a skillset that they were looking for because of our way of bringing things together.
UnderCover: Not everyone who joins CIA ends up in operations, but that’s where your path led?
Walder: I was in the Counterterrorism Center, which was relatively new. Today, we think they’re huge and they’ve been around forever. And really the agency at that point in time was very traditional. You had the Russia group or you had the Latin America group, which was all the different countries. And the ideas of centers were rather new. The Counterintelligence Center had been there for a while and so had counterproliferation but counterterrorism and counter-narcotics were on the newer side. I was a staff operations officer in the DO (Directorate of Operations), but it was sort of a hybrid position. And to be honest with you, I was very unqualified to be an analyst. I mean a lot of those folks have PhDs in Middle Eastern Studies and those kinds of things. And I just had a Bachelor’s in History, so I don’t think that would’ve been an appropriate fit for me anyway.
UnderCover: And not long after you joined, 9/11 happened, which brought with it a dramatic increase in hiring and skill sets. How did you see that occurring?
Walder: I definitely witnessed that because obviously I was one of the people that was brought in beforehand, which is unusual. A lot of the books by females I’ve seen out there are written by people who were brought in after 9-11. I think you have to remember when I was put there, I was maybe 21 and at the time, counterterrorism was not the place to be. It was more, like I said, the Russia branch or counter-narcotics or those kinds of things. So initially I think when September 11th happened, we really appreciated the influx of new people. I think some people maybe didn’t. I can’t speak for everyone. I can only speak for myself, but I think we really appreciated the influx because it was, at the time, like ‘finally we’ll get the money and the funding to do what we need to do to fight terrorism.’ I do think there was some tension between people that were there before 911 and people that came after 911 but I think for me, because I came just a year and a half before 911, I hadn’t been there for decades. For me, it wasn’t as big of a source of tension.
UnderCover: Did the new faces you were seeing reflect America in more diverse ways?
Walder: I think we really are fighting a lot of times with how the media portrays us. And then also it’s a reflection of the time as well too. There were not a lot of subgroups within the Counterterrorism Center before 911. It was just everyone tracking bin Laden and that’s kind of it. But I think after September 11th, again back to your question of how things changed, they divided the center up into these separate specialty groups. My group was a newer group. We didn’t have people that had been there for decades and decades. However, we had a lot of people that had been in the Counterterrorism Center for decades and decades. What I will say is just in thinking back about my group is there were definitely more women in it than men, which I think probably bucks the stereotype that maybe some people have. My chief was a male, but I would say it was probably 65% women for 35% men. There were definitely more women. I would also say just in terms of age, it ran the gamut. You had people that were very seasoned coming in with 20, 25 years of experience. But then you had myself, I had a year and a half or someone who was just brand new who just came from the Farm. It was a really diverse age group. We had people who were openly gay. People who are straight. I felt it was actually in terms of race, maybe not the most diverse. I don’t think it was because the agency was being racist. I think it was just who was applying at the time. I don’t think that was a reflection of how the agency felt about race in any way, shape or form. I mean I never got that perception from them. But I would say in terms of age and gender, even religion, we had three Jews alone in my office, I found it to be a pretty diverse place to work.
UnderCover: And you were eventually offered the opportunity to go overseas?
Walder: I went overseas a couple different times. I think for me, that’s what I went there to do.
UnderCover: Now that you’ve had some time to reflect on it and you’ve written a book, what was driving you to pursue that mission and then when you got there, was it what you thought it was going to be?
Walder: I guess to answer the second part first: What I see today that’s really kind of troubling, is that people are very influenced by what they see on TV and in the movies. And most college students, when I speak with them, tell me they want to be jumping out of helicopters right away. And that’s not how it works. I think probably the best thing for me was that I had no expectations. And that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. It just means that I did not know what to expect. I was just ready to take this opportunity no matter what it was going to offer me or throw my way. And I think that’s what led me to have such a positive experience there.
UnderCover: I’m assuming that you have peer groups and former women who really over the last couple of years, it’s the first time they’ve started to tell their stories and share them. What do you think is driving the willingness and the desire to share the different experiences?
Walder: I do have a really great peer support group, just amazing ex-CIA women who have just been so incredibly supportive. I think what has changed the narrative in my opinion, and again, this is just my opinion and I don’t really want to get political necessarily, is perhaps the 2016 election. I think that, and again, I’m just speaking for myself, but I really think that caused me some pause to sit back and reflect. And that was the impetus, if you want me to be perfectly honest with you, for me writing my book.
And my husband had been bothering me for almost a decade. And I wouldn’t do it. But I also think, and this isn’t meant to be a gender study, I don’t want to put off your readers and your base, but I think women typically, are just biologically different. Obviously, we tend to not brag or talk about ourselves. And we view sharing our stories – even though we’re not sharing our stories necessarily for the purpose of bragging, but for effecting change – as something you shouldn’t do. I worked with a co-author, which was probably one of the best things I could have done for myself. Otherwise, my book would be probably three pages. But I think that now, women are upset. They’re mad and I think women now realize we need to overcome those things that are of indicative of who we are. We need to get past that because if we don’t start sharing our stories, we’re never going to have a seat at the table in terms of foreign policy making and national security. And if we don’t start talking about our accomplishments and things that we’ve done we’re never going to get to the point where we’re going to have these leadership roles and we have to start doing that.
UnderCover: Tell me a little bit about your transition from the CIA to the FBI and what surprised you about the differences?
Walder: In a way I’m glad it happens because it exposed me to both sides of the coin. But I think for me, some of it was my naivete. Some of it was thinking I would be treated the exact same way and that there’s not too much of a difference between the intelligence community and law enforcement. I’m not afraid to admit that I was naive and wrong. There was a tremendous difference really from the moment I hit Quantico and the training academy, and I talk about that in the book.
UnderCover: What are you hoping that people, when they read your book, will walk away with?
Walder: I was on the operations side of the agency and I was on operations side of FBI, and to know that’s something that’s possible for women to do if that’s what they choose to do. But also, particularly in this day and age where the dialogue is so divisive and so ethnocentric and nationalistic, my hope is that people can take some inspiration to gain some understanding of people that are different than us. You don’t have to like them. You don’t have to empathize with them, and you don’t have to sympathize with them. But if we just take a moment to hear what they’re saying, whether we agree with it or not, it changes how we deal with them. And I think my third thing is to bring to light some of the gender discrimination that’s out there. Not a lot of people talk very frankly about the gender harassment that exists at the FBI and I want to just kind of shine a light on that in the hopes that it will change.
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