Interview with Tracy Walder, the “Unexpected Spy”
The following is a transcript of an interview with Tracy Walder, author of The Unexpected Spy. To read more about the novel, check out my book review here. Parts of this interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: As a Mom and high school teacher you presumably don’t have much free time, what motivated you to write “The Unexpected Spy?”
It’s couple fold – the first reason for publishing the book was I have a four and a half year old daughter now, and my husband has always been like, “write a book, write a book, write a book.” And I never really took him up on it. Having a daughter, especially a girl, in today’s world, it was really important for me to get my story out there. I don’t mean to be political in any way, don’t want this to be a political conversation, but I was very not happy with the way things were going politically and the treatment, the light treatment, of national security. And I felt like now was a really good time to get my message out there.
Q: Who do you hope is the intended audience? I saw your story as particularly impactful for young women, especially those in high school or college, but who do you hope the readership is?
To be honest with you, I hope it’s everyone. I think initially I thought, “I really hope that young women read this,” but at the same time I also want men to read it. I think there’s a lot of stereotypes that exist surrounding women in foreign policy and law enforcement roles, that we can’t have femininity. We have to push that to the side to fulfill whatever gender stereotypes we face. So in a strange way, I really would like males to read it, as well, because I hope that it dispels some of that and gives them a different insight.
Q: You mention throughout the novel the bias you often faced as a woman, particularly when working with allies. What advice do you have for women in national security who still deal with this bias and unfair treatment?
At CIA in my book I talk about that I feel I was treated rather fairly. I know every woman has a different experience and I certainly don’t want to minimize those. I think at the FBI my treatment was pretty horrendous as a female. My advice to them would be to always be yourself. Don’t try to fit into whatever the gender norms are and whatever the males around you expect you to be. I don’t think it’s the idea of always having to be smarter than them or work harder than them. Rather you are there for the same reason that they are, and you’re there because you possess the same talents that they do, and to always remember that about yourself. It’s not about being better, it’s staying the course and remembering why you’re there.
Q: What do you think made you a successful operations officer with the CIA?
That’s a good question. In a strange way, part of my naivete and being so young actually made me a good officer, in that I don’t know that I tended to overthink things too much, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
I was reading an article recently that really kind of summed it up that females can be just as good on the operations side as males, and we have this really good ability sometimes, that males don’t necessarily possess, to read people and be active listeners. Whereas males possess different things that they do differently.
And in reflecting on some of the things that I did and some of the situations where I was successful, I personally believe that my, and as toddler-ish as this sounds, that my listening skills and my ability to actively listen really worked well in my favor. And my ability to put my ego to the side and not take things personally, I think helped make me successful. I’m very good at reading people and understanding their behavior, really just at first meeting them, and I think having the ability to do that over someone made me effective at what I was doing.
Q: What were your greatest lesson learned from both the CIA and FBI and how have they impacted your time after service?
A couple of things. One of the biggest lessons especially being American, I think we have a tendency to think that it’s kind of our way or the highway, and we know what’s best. And I love being an American. I don’t want to live in any other country. But one thing that really helped me, and this is in my book, was this idea that I was sitting next to someone from a Western European country, and he could not have been nicer to me. But he felt bad, obviously, about September 11th and the people that we lost, and he was giving his condolences. And he said, “But you know, I just want to put this into perspective for you, that our country’s been fighting a civil war for a hundred years, and we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of people, and we haven’t had this kind of outpouring of support.” And that really made me stop and think about our place in the world and our job. We need to bring other countries into our fold and have those same expectations for how we treat them when they experience a significant loss that they treat us with.
And I think for me, at 22, you are very ethnocentric, right? And that sort of helped me … It’s not all about me anymore, was the crux of that conversation. When I was speaking with a terrorist, and he told me that it’s not Americans he hated, he hated the Jews, and I’m a Jew, that was obviously really tough to hear, but it was a way of making my understanding broader and even understanding why he became a terrorist. I think why people do things is probably one of the biggest gets. Figuring that out is probably one of our biggest gets, unlocking intelligence from them, right? Because then you can, it kind of goes back to that listening, and so that was a big lesson that I learned, always figure out what makes people tick. And as much as I hated him for saying he hated Jews, I sort of had to set that aside and plow through that, which is another lesson that I learned.
Q: Looking back, what do you wish you had known before you took either of these jobs?
I think from the FBI side, I was very naive and I assumed that it would be very much like the CIA, and it was absolutely not in no way, shape, or form. Law enforcement is very different than intelligence gathering, even on the ops side. Even on the ops side, which I was on, it’s extremely different. The other thing that I wish I had known about the CIA, and I’m not sure if this is their fault or not, was that at the time that I worked there, there was only one psychologist that we could go to if we were feeling PTSD from some of the things that we were doing. And that was, I wish I had known how to handle that better and I wish the agency, and they may be doing a better job now, but that would be one thing that I really wish they did a little better.
Q: You touched on this before – your aim for the book to be apolitical in nature. Did you consider adding a more critical lens in terms of expressing your policy views on national security decisions? Is that something you’re interested in doing moving forward?
Oh, definitely something I’m very interested in doing moving forward. I tried not to incorporate it into the book, just because in outlining the book, it was too many different directions that I was going. I worked at the FBI, I worked at the CIA, and if I then gave my opinions about foreign policy, even within the book, it’s too broad as a book, if that makes any sense.
It’s not digestible. Foreign policy is one of my favorite things to talk about, and I obviously have a lot of opinions about it, and I’d like to think that they’re relatively informed. And I mean, the great thing about the CIA is I served under Clinton and I served under Bush, so I served under two different administrations. I didn’t notice a shift too much under each of those presidents. So it really helps me be apolitical and independent in my foreign policy thought, which I think we need today.
Q: On that note, the current administration, as opposed to either of the ones you served under, has been more critical of the intelligence community and called into question its professionalism. Do you think this issue is getting worse, and what do you think the intelligence community can do about it?
So I do think it’s getting worse, and one of the reasons I think that it’s getting worse, I initially had thought that perhaps it was getting a little bit better, because we hadn’t heard anything for a while. But with the recent assassination in Iran, one of the things that I realized initially, when it first happened, was that Trump was saying that the CIA told him to do it. The CIA told him to do it. He kept bringing that back onto the CIA. And we now have information that states to the contrary of that, is that the CIA did not personally order this. And I think that’s dangerous, because it gives a public perception that the CIA is just a bunch of kind of trigger happy assassins.
Now I think now we’re seeing sort of, not retaliation, but we have the Taliban claiming that they shot down that plane with the two CIA officers that were on it. And we don’t know who for sure was on those planes. Whether it was mechanical damage or not, we don’t know, and I’m not sure that we’re ever going to know, but it could have been some tit for tat kind of game, and if the CIA that has to suffer the consequences of that. And I think that’s a problem.
Q: The 4th industrial revolution, where technologies like AI, 5G, and the internet of things converge is poised to have massive effects on all of society, including the intelligence community. What do you feel are the reforms or changes most important for the intelligence community to make as we enter this new age?
Well, my hope, and again, it’s hard for me to say because I don’t work there right now, I hope that we’re doing a better job at the sort of white hat hacking, if you will. And I hope that we’re doing a better job, I think the biggest problem, to be honest with you, is education, which sounds really cliché. But our senators and congressmen, particularly senators, their average age is about 55 plus, and it’s not to throw that age under the bus, but the reality is, is they don’t have the same kind of knowledge that people in your generation have. And I think when it comes to allocating funds to that, if they don’t understand it, they’re not going to do it. And if it’s too complicated for them, they’re not going to do it.
And I’m not sure that we’re sending down the right people to brief them on these matters, because it’s confusing. We need someone who can really water it down and explain to them, this is why we need this, and almost scare them if you will, because that’s not the way to respond. They have to be responsible to their constituents and they have to keep their constituents safe. And I think right now there’s this huge ignorance gap in that people just don’t understand it, and when you don’t understand something and don’t have the time to understand something, why would you allocate funds to it? It doesn’t make sense.
And I think, also one of the things I was reading recently, is the CIA also has to change the way they do cover. You know, I worked overseas. But back in my time, we had the internet, I’m not that old, but we didn’t have a digital trail. I didn’t have Facebook. Now if you’re serving overseas undercover, and someone’s trying to find you and there’s zero digital trail whatsoever, that is a red flag to them. You need to seem normal. And I would say 99.9% of Americans leave some kind of digital trail. So you need to seem like you blend in with that, and again, I’m sure the CIA is on it. But it’s just the way things have changed, which is so different.
Q: I’m, curious what your future plans hold. Are you still teaching, and where do you hope the books takes you?
I actually had to leave teaching a couple of weeks ago, at the end of the semester, and the reason why is obviously I love my students and the school very, very much, and I love teaching all girls. A lot of my students have gone on to the FBI, Department of Justice, CIA, which has been so exciting for me. But it was the book. I would have to take off too much time, and that’s not fair to those girls. So I stepped away from that. With the book, my biggest hope, I think it’s very detrimental to our national security that really the female voice is absent from our national security decisions. I turn on the news and all I see are a bunch of white males all the time. And that’s not to put them down. I mean, yes, I’m a feminist, but I have a husband, I have a father. I deeply respect males, but we’re not going to change anything until we change who’s in those positions.
And my hope is that somebody reads my book and sees that you can still be feminine, you can still love girly things and do these jobs. A lot of students that I have talked to, and they’re brilliant, will say “I don’t think I can do that because I like this.” We need to change the gender narrative, because I am very scared for the future of our foreign policy.
I really hope that this book, maybe I’m just too wishful thinking, can help de-politicize national security. I really do. I don’t think it has a place in politics, in my opinion, because when I worked at the CIA it was so apolitical, and that would be my hope. And I would love to do more, working with foreign affairs and writing about foreign affairs and foreign policy. That’s truly my passion in life. And I feel like as a woman, if I can start doing that more, then perhaps I can do my part in changing the gender narrative around that.