Review: How `Unexpected Spy’ author went from college to CIA

Unexpected Spy

“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, by Tracy Walder with Jessica Anya Blau

An early paragraph in “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 with Jessica Anya Blau notes how the Iraq war hinged on proof that Saddam Hussein had created and was storing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq. Walder belonged to a Central Intelligence Agency team assigned to find proof of those weapons – but the team found none.

Moreover, Walder writes that someone in the White House altered a chart that her team had made to show the White House that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. The purpose of the change: to persuade the world that he did.

But rather than an exploration of decision-making at the highest levels of government, this book is more a diary of the author’s journey from bullied grade-schooler through her work at the CIA and the FBI. Publisher St. Martin’s Press says the book embodies “a message of female power. If one sorority girl can come face-to-face with the most dangerous men the world has ever known and come out … triumphant and with compassion, then there’s hope for everyone.”

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Well, maybe so. If you are a white girl of privilege fortunate enough to attend a top private university such as the University of Southern California, where Walder graduated, yes. But it’s hard to imagine girls of color from the grittier parts of America seeing themselves in this early-career odyssey of CIA work mostly as a researcher and analyst.

Walder says she moved to FBI counterintelligence when her undercover CIA life overseas felt untenable. At the FBI, Walder complained of sexism; she also concluded that her “skills and talents were not being properly utilized.”

However, she remains a CIA loyalist.

Walder writes that she doesn’t support torture and doesn’t believe it works, a conclusion shared by academics, the FBI and other experts at coaxing information from people. Nonetheless, Walder spent the better part of a page rationalizing the Bush administration’s decision to use torture.

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Walder also excuses the 9-11 commission report that faulted the CIA for failing to communicate with the FBI. Walder says that from where she sat, everyone at the CIA was trying to make America safe.

Perhaps so, but some insight into how the two agencies communicate would have been illuminating.

Walder is now teaching high school. St. Martin’s Press says she is leaving that career at the end of this semester; she has joined the board of Girl Security, a non-profit organization that labors to boost the number of women in national security through training and mentoring programs.