As a journalist covering the spy beat, I’ve read my share of CIA memoirs and interviewed my share of CIA officers. But until I read advance, uncorrected proofs of “Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA” by Amaryllis Fox, I had never come across such granular detail about how they do their jobs. Fox, who says she spent nearly a decade working for the clandestine service of the CIA, reveals how the agency trains its officers to run a surveillance detection route; how, step by step, CIA spies go about establishing a cover identity; and the precise protocol agents use to set up a meeting with, say, an arms broker looking to sell nuclear weapons to al-Qaeda.
All of which prompts a question: How on earth did Fox manage to get agency censors to sign off on illuminating so many details of CIA tradecraft?
As it turns out, she didn’t.
This past weekend, I was in Virginia Beach, chaperoning my son’s soccer team on a road trip, when a query arrived from an editor. Had I seen the story that NBC News posted? “Ex-CIA spy readies to publish book about undercover exploits without agency approval,” read the headline. NBC credited journalist Yashar Ali with first reporting the story in his newsletter, and noted that while Fox had given her manuscript to the agency, she had not gotten a green light to publish it. (It is scheduled for release Oct. 15.)
To say this is verboten doesn’t begin to capture it. CIA officers — past and present — are required to run anything they want to publish on intelligence matters past the agency’s Publications Review Board (PRB). That’s in the service of protecting classified information and national security. And the CIA defines “publishing” quite broadly: “It means communicating by any means (including orally or electronically).” The CIA website states clearly that the agency must complete its review before material is “shared with publishers, blog-subscribers, a TV audience, ghost-writers, co-authors, editors, family members, assistants, representatives, or anyone else not authorized to receive or review such classified information.”
How seriously does the CIA take this requirement? I used to teach a class on journalism and national security at Georgetown University, and one of my students worked for the agency and had an active security clearance. The PRB insisted on signing off on every homework assignment, even on seemingly benign topics, before she was allowed to turn them in. So we worked out a system: My student would forward me a time-stamped email, showing that she’d submitted her work to agency censors by my deadline. Then we’d wait, sometimes until well after I’d graded and returned papers to the rest of the class.
Do we imagine, then, that the CIA is fine with a former officer publishing, without agency approval, a book-length, firsthand account of working for CTC/WMD, the weapons of mass destruction unit of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center? Or with Vogue publishing an excerpt of the book, as the magazine did last month? Or with galleys of the unpublished manuscript being shipped to journalists far and wide?
We can’t know for sure, because the CIA isn’t talking. I first asked for comment on Aug. 8 and repeated my query on Sept. 7. Could the CIA offer any guidance on Fox or her tenure at the agency? What are the consequences for publishing without PRB approval? The CIA declined to comment.
But on that second question, it occurred to me that others might have expertise to share. And sure enough, on Twitter I found Mark Zaid holding forth. Zaid is a well-known Washington lawyer who specializes in national security cases. He described the criminal prosecution and/or civil action that might await Fox. “GUARANTEED WIN by CIA,” he tweeted. “I’ve handled more of these cases than any attny.”
Well, by Monday, Zaid had added one more case. “In the time between my tweets and now, my firm was actually retained by Ms. Fox,” Zaid wrote in an email to me, after I reached out to ask for clarification on a couple of points he’d made on Twitter. He now maintains that there was a “misunderstanding,” adding, “Ms. Fox remains steadfast in her desire to abide by any legal obligations she remains under, and is nothing but loyal to our country and her former employer.”
Fox told NBC News that she had submitted her manuscript to the agency more than a year ago and that, so far, she had been asked to make only minor changes, which she accepted. The agency asked for no redactions, Fox told NBC. She also said she was willing to make any other requested changes. Speaking to NBC by phone, she said she changed some details to protect national security.
But with Fox now lawyered up, you have to wonder whether the book’s publication might be delayed or spiked altogether. Fox’s publisher referred this question back to Zaid, who replied, “At the moment the official publication date remains as is.”
It would be a shame if this book never sees daylight, because lost in the legal pickle that Fox finds herself in is the fact that, judging from the advance copy, it’s a great read. Fox hustles us between a CIA safe house in Virginia and meetings in France with the likes of someone she calls Jakab, a Hungarian arms broker with a sorrowful voice and a body that’s “all angular sinew like a Stalinist statue with prison tattoos.”
Parts of her account are wild to the point of defying belief. She says she single-handedly talked the leader of an al-Qaeda terrorist cell out of detonating a dirty bomb in Karachi, Pakistan, by bonding over their babies and explaining why clove oil is the best home remedy for a newborn’s wheezing cough. For real?
But along with the cloak-and-dagger action, Fox writes movingly of trying to reconcile a career in espionage with family life. She’s living in China, working under nonofficial cover and on her second marriage — the CIA is tough on marriages — when she gets pregnant. Six months along, Fox can feel the baby hiccupping inside her, and it gives her pause. Should a future mom really be out preventing the sale of WMDs to terrorists, she wonders? Then again, how could a future mom possibly choose not to?
I kept having to shut the book to reflect deeply on my own parenting choices. When my children were very small, I strapped on body armor to report from Iraq and Afghanistan. Most friends were supportive; some judged me; some probably did both. But Fox takes the juggling-motherhood-with-challenging-job thing to a new level. I smile to think what the mommy-judgers would make of her slinging newborn Zoë into a Baby Bjorn as she heads off to meetings with clandestine arms dealers. Fox describes running surveillance detection routes with the baby snoring gently under her chin, then using the diaper bag as a handy place to tuck papers stuffed in concealment devices until she can get home and transmit them via her covert communications system.
The trouble with Fox, as with all former CIA officers penning memoirs, is that she’s impossible to fact-check. As a matter of policy, the agency declines to confirm an individual’s job title or dates of employment, never mind details of overseas assignments. Check the PRB page on the CIA website, and you’ll find no mention of any duty to correct the record.
So maybe everything unfolded as Fox recounts on these pages, or maybe it didn’t. Even if she does eventually secure approval to publish, we’ll never know for sure. It’s left to us to decide how much that matters.
Kelly is co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and previously served as NPR’s national security correspondent. Her latest novel is “The Bullet.”