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Book Review: The Unexpected Spy

In The Unexpected Spy, Tracy Walder recounts her journey as a young woman fighting terrorism in two of America’s major intelligence agencies. She provides her readers a vivid and humble view of the everyday life of a CIA Staff Operations Officer (SOO) and FBI Special Agent in the wake of 9/11. Ultimately, her story paints a frank picture of the work of a young professional in both agencies, serving as an inspiration to women navigating the male-dominated field of national security.

Image courtesy of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

Walder begins her memoir in an undisclosed location in the Middle East where she is working with a small team to question a high-value terrorist to help stop an impending attack. As she explains the emotions she felt during this experience, she provides the reader the first glimpse into a narrative present throughout the novel: working in national-security does not require one to relinquish their femininity.  In fact, in the midst of chaos in the Middle East she calls her mom to ask her to help arrange a hair appointment during her next short visit to Washington.

Walder began working as a SOO for the CIA in Langley, Virginia just weeks after graduating from the University of Southern California (USC) in 2000. A year later, after the events of 9/11, Walder finds herself on a small team working in a room called “The Vault” watching aerial footage of terrorist training camps in the Middle East. During her time in “The Vault” she meets everyone from high-ranking Senators to CIA Director George Tenet and former president George W Bush. As a young officer, Walder is at the center of America’s fight against terrorism and quickly learns the sacrifices intelligence professionals make from missing holidays at home to struggling with personal relationships.

As Walder’s career continues in the CIA she begins to travel more overseas, to Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. In contrast to her time in Langley, Walder often finds herself in misogynist environments, where her counterparts in foreign governments do not take a tall, blonde, American woman working in national security seriously. Rather than conform to the standard of what one “should” look like, Walder continues to not lose sight of who she is, and reminds readers that even the simple act of wearing pink lipstick to a work dinner is how she stayed true to herself.  

After four years in the CIA, Walder sets off on a new journey with the FBI, which begins with months of training at the infamous FBI Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia. While Walder graduates from the academy as a Special Agent, her experience at Quantico harks back to her time overseas. Her FBI colleagues and teachers question her authenticity, her career to date, and ultimately her ability to serve as a Special Agent. As Walder moves to Los Angeles to work in an FBI Field Office, the environment of Quantico is not left behind. It is clear that for Walder the CIA and FBI stood in stark contrast to each other.

Walder’s story provides a human account of intelligence and law enforcement, and one that begins to peel back the layers of what it means to become and then serve as an Operations Officer or Field Agent. She spends very little time analyzing the foreign policy decisions that ultimately led to the work she conducted and in doing to remains an apolitical voice. The Unexpected Spy serves a quick, enjoyable read for anyone considering a career in these fields or simply curious about what unfolded in the eyes of a young officer in the years after 9/11. Ultimately, Walder’s story as a young, nonconforming woman injects an important narrative often missing in the memoirs and biographies of national security professionals.

Want to hear from Walder herself? Check out my interview with her here: “Interview with Tracy Walder, the Unexpected Spy


Aubrey Rugo

Aubrey is an editor with Charged Affairs and an Associate Consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton supporting the U.S. Department of Defense. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Southern California with a B.A. International Relations. She is particularly interested in the intersection of the public and private sectors, with a focus on emerging markets, and the implications of new technologies on national security policy.

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