Title: The Unexpected Spy
Author: Tracy Walder with Jessica Anya Blau
Published: February 2020
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
I received a copy of The Unexpected Spy from Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
A highly entertaining account of a young woman who went straight from her college sorority to the CIA, where she hunted terrorists and WMDs
“A thrilling tale…Walder’s fast-paced and intense narrative opens a window into life in two of America’s major intelligence agencies” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
When Tracy Walder enrolled at the University of Southern California, she never thought that one day she would offer her pink beanbag chair in the Delta Gamma house to a CIA recruiter, or that she’d fly to the Middle East under an alias identity.
The Unexpected Spy is the riveting story of Walder’s tenure in the CIA and, later, the FBI. In high-security, steel-walled rooms in Virginia, Walder watched al-Qaeda members with drones as President Bush looked over her shoulder and CIA Director George Tenet brought her donuts. She tracked chemical terrorists and searched the world for Weapons of Mass Destruction. She created a chemical terror chart that someone in the White House altered to convey information she did not have or believe, leading to the Iraq invasion. Driven to stop terrorism, Walder debriefed terrorists—men who swore they’d never speak to a woman—until they gave her leads. She followed trails through North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, shutting down multiple chemical attacks.
Then Walder moved to the FBI, where she worked in counterintelligence. In a single year, she helped take down one of the most notorious foreign spies ever caught on American soil. Catching the bad guys wasn’t a problem in the FBI, but rampant sexism was. Walder left the FBI to teach young women, encouraging them to find a place in the FBI, CIA, State Department or the Senate—and thus change the world.
So, it looks like 2019 may have been the year I started reading biographies and memoirs. I didn’t read many, but the ones I did read I enjoyed a lot and when I was approached to review The Unexpected Spy I took a moment to think if it was something I would really be interested in. The offer came on the back of my review of Jet Girl, which I enjoyed a lot, and I came to the conclusion that if I’m going to read memoir, I want it to be one about women doing amazing things in the world, so I agreed, and I’m so glad I did.
The Unexpected Spy is the story of how Tracy Walder went from sorority girl to a CIA officer who would eventually travel to some of the most dangerous parts of the world under aliases in order to put a stop to terrorism.
Before I write about my thoughts on the book itself, I want to point out that aspects of Walder’s story have been redacted by the CIA (for obvious reasons) and in her foreword, Walder made it clear that she decided to keep in the redacted sections but just black them out rather than rewriting sections. This may bother some people, but I actually found it quite interesting to read what was around the redacted parts and to fill in some of the blanks with the information given. I didn’t have a problem with it, but it’s something to keep in mind. She’s also changed the names of people to protect identities and so forth.
Now, as a school teacher from Australia, there’s not a lot I have in common with a Californian sorority-girl-turned-CIA-officer-turned-FBI-agent. While I’m familiar with some of the historical events that Walder was involved in, and some of the White House names, the rest is pretty far removed from my life, so it was a reading experience that gave me a bit more of an insight into the workings of the CIA and FBI that aren’t purely based off of television and/or movies.
The writing is very easy to follow and Walder has a way of weaving her story together in way that offers insight into both her work and the political climate at the time. But the focus is definitely her work, in which she surveilled al-Qaeda operatives using drones and tracked terrorists involved in the production of Weapons of Mass Destruction. There’s a lot on the process of being vetted by the CIA and the training that she underwent, on the people she worked with and eventually her transition to the FBI which was a whole different ball game, where Walder pointed out the expectations of women were completely different to those of the CIA.
I liked that Walder didn’t shy away from the difficulties she faced as a woman in either agency – in the CIA if she was to debrief terrorists, chances were that they wouldn’t talk to her because she was a woman, and in the FBI she was penalised for being a woman, accused of lying about being a CIA officer because of how she looked and overlooked for positions despite her qualifications. More than that, I liked that she stuck to her beliefs that woman can do anything they set their mind to and used her time after leaving the FBI to help young women do just that.
This was a really interesting read about a strong, independent woman who wanted to make the world a better place and eventually found herself in a position to do that. I wish the book every success when it’s released in late February