Tracy Walder was a young Jewish sorority sister in her junior year at the University of Southern California in the spring of 1999 when she stopped by the CIA’s recruitment table at an on-campus job fair.
Walder, who planned to be a high school history teacher, didn’t know much about the intelligence agency but she loved traveling, political science and Middle Eastern studies. She was also concerned about the dangers posed to Americans, particularly Jews, by Islamic extremism.
Without much thought, Walder applied for a job with the CIA and was hired straight out of college after a rigorous background check. She spent the next four years as a counterterrorism staff operations officer, traveling around the world under an assumed name, working with informants, interviewing terrorists in war zones and preventing terrorist attacks.
Walder’s new memoir, “The Unexpected Spy: From the CIA to the FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World’s Most Notorious Terrorists” (St. Martin’s Press), tells the amazing story of her tenure with the CIA and her subsequent career as a special FBI agent.
This Thursday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m., she and local novelist Jessica Anya Blau, who collaborated on the book with Walder, will speak at The Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road in Mount Washington.
Jmore recently spoke with Walder, 41, who lives in Dallas with her husband and daughter, about the book and her life experiences.
Jmore: What in your upbringing prepared you to be a foreign intelligence operative?
Walder: I’m not entirely sure! I was raised in a middle-class family, drove a 20-year-old car. My parents didn’t really care about stuff. But they did believe in experiences, and they wanted to expose us to the world. We traveled a lot.
Also, I learned tenacity. I grew up with some physical struggles and my parents were, like, you can either wallow in this or change this. That was the approach I took to the CIA and the FBI.
What possessed you to apply to the CIA?
I’ve done a lot of reflection about that. In the mid-‘90s, we didn’t have [TV] shows like ‘Homeland’ or ‘Quantico’ or ‘Criminal Minds.’ There weren’t even James Bond films being made then. I don’t know that we even had an idea of what a CIA operative did.
I really wasn’t influenced by anything but wanting to see the world.
Parts of the book are redacted. Why?
When you write a book about the CIA, you have to submit it to the CIA’s publication review board. So the first time we submitted it, they redacted a full three chapters. And when they redact, they don’t tell you why they redacted, so you have to try to figure it out.
So we took out some stuff and then resubmitted. They sent it back with one-and-a-half chapters redacted. So we reworked it and sent it back again. This time, they only made some smaller redactions. My editor said, ‘Don’t submit it again.’ So we left it as it is.
Did being Jewish impact your work?
Before I applied to the CIA, I heard [CNN national security analyst] Peter Bergen interview [Osama] Bin Laden, who stated he hated Jews.
The turning point for me was being face-to-face with a terrorist who said he hated Jews more than Americans. I wanted to tell him I was Jewish but I knew doing that would cause him to stop answering my questions, which could hurt national security. So I never told him. To this day, I wish I did.
How did you deal with some of the horrors you witnessed?
I was 21 when I started, and you learn very quickly at the agency that there is no time to process how you feel because another attack might happen, and that’s on you.
Also, I was raised not to complain. I’m close to my parents and one of the scarier things I experienced was traveling to a war zone and thinking I might not come back. Now that I’m a mom myself, it would have been within societal norms for my Jewish mom to say, ‘I’m scared for you’ or ‘Maybe you shouldn’t go.’ But she never did that. She always said, ‘This will be a great opportunity for you.’
Do you think you suffer from Post-traumatic stress disorder?
Yes, 100 percent. If you’re in the CIA and you go see a therapist, you have to report it. In reality, you should have to report it if you don’t see a therapist. Even if you do, not every psychologist has the same security clearance that you do, so you can’t tell them everything.
I’m still haunted by what I saw. I try not to think about it, but I haven’t processed it appropriately.
Your descriptions of the CIA and the FBI are quite different.
Yes, I think the CIA and the FBI are so different because the goals and the mentalities of the two agencies are so different. The CIA is a foreign intelligence organization and the FBI is strictly law enforcement. At the CIA there’s a lot of intelligence gathering; there’s a lot of creativity, collaboration, analysis. At the FBI, it’s machismo. Women aren’t supposed to want to do this kind of work. That’s part of it.
You’re clear in the book that the Bush administration lied about weapons of mass destruction.
On the one hand, I struggled with including that in the book because of the families of the service members who died. I didn’t want the families to think that their son or daughter, mother or father, died in vain, and I’m not saying they did.
Saddam Hussein was a bad man, but Bush thought he wouldn’t get support for invading Iraq unless he tied it to terrorism. I think the government owes it to the people to be honest.
How do you feel about the way President Trump has disparaged the intelligence community?
No one else has asked me that yet! Trump was the impetus for writing the book. After the election, I was mad because this was someone who was debasing, discrediting and destabilizing the intelligence community.
I think Trump is the worst thing that’s ever happened to our foreign policy.
What’s it like to be doing all these interviews and appearances?
That’s the whole reason I didn’t want to write the book. I’m an introvert and it doesn’t appeal to me to be in the spotlight. I try to keep my mind on the bigger goals: to get more women involved in these careers and to change the narrative that femininity doesn’t go with careers as operatives and law enforcement.
A lot of statistics show that women are better at recruiting assets because of our empathy. We are more collaborative. If women aren’t represented in these careers, it’s a severe problem for our national security.
What have you been doing since you left the FBI?
I was teaching, but I had to take a break at the end of last month because of the book release. Now, I work with a nonpartisan nonprofit called Girl Security. It was started by a woman who is beyond amazing. It’s aimed at getting girls to engage in dialogue around foreign policy. It’s a huge deal!
For information about Tracy Walder’s appearance at The Ivy Bookshop, click here.