Tracy Walder the unexpected spy from USC

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It was a SRO audience on Thursday evening at the Ivy Bookshop on Falls Road. Tracy Walder, an attractive young woman in her early 40s was in Baltimore at her very first public reading from her new book. Its intriguing title is: The Unexpected Spy: From the CIA to the FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World’s Most Notorious Terrorists.

Walder talked in general terms about her undercover career at both the CIA and FBI. Naturally, there are a lot of those black redactions in her book. Her journey was into the theatre of top-secret, highly classified work, and mostly in the volatile Middle East, to boot. As a result, she couldn’t use any real names of people she had met. Also, Walder could not cite any particular places, towns or cities where she had been assigned. The latter were usually referred to as “black spots.”

Hey, this is top spy, counterintelligence material we’re talking about, including Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and dangerous, thriller missions! Get used to it. You just have to read between the lines.

Walder also discussed how her book, because of a non-disclosure agreement, had to first be approved by the CIA. Now, as expected, that was a battle worthy of a book on its own. Nevertheless, the author is “very proud” of the fact that she stuck to her guns and got it done much to her own satisfaction.

Accompanying Walder in her presentation at the Ivy was Jessica Anya Blau. She co-wrote the book with her. Ms. Blau is well-known to Baltimore’s literary community as a very successful and talented novelist.

Walder related how she had seen an interview on television back in 1997, that Osama bin Laden, later the leader of Islamic extremists (al-Qaeda), had done on CNN with Peter Bergen, its national security analyst. She said she was “chilled and outraged” by bin Laden’s comments and his veiled threat about his “future plans.”

Walder, whose name was then Tracy Schandler, was later recruited in her junior years of college by the CIA on the campus of the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles. At the time, she was a sorority sister, who was interested “in Greek culture,” and loved to memorize maps, especially of the Middle East.

Jessica Anya Blau

The agent (name redacted) asked her after she had handed him her resume: “Do you want to be in the CIA?” Her answer, “Yes, I do.”  The rest, as they say, is history. At the age of 21, in 2000, Walder, although regularly subjected to “bullying in school” by her female classmates, was welcomed into the ranks of the CIA.

That memory of bin Laden’s TV interview stuck with Walder. It was strongly reinforced after the horrific 9/11 terror attack in the U.S., killing nearly 3,000 people.  The Bush-Cheney duo put the blame on al-Qaeda for orchestrating that massive crime.

After 9/11, Walder was assigned to a unit in the field of counterterrorism, which focused chiefly “on defeating al-Qaeda.” Part of her duties was to interrogate “terrorists.” The information she received from them, “saved many lives,” she underscored. When she was driven around from base to base to do her interrogating, she was usually hidden “in a cargo bin” or the “trunk of a car,” with an occasional glimpse outside of the “beautiful sky.”

When I asked her if her group had developed any evidence connecting Iraq’s then-President Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda, she said: “there was none.” The White House under President George W. Bush (2001-09), however, “wasn’t interested” in hearing that kind of message, Walder continued. They turned her team’s report around, “retitled it,” and Colin Powell used it at the UN, in 2003, to make the fake case for war against Iraq. Later, Powell admitted that the speech that he had given was “a blot” on his record.

In December 2001, Walder recalls being at a CIA facility, k/a “The Vault,” along with President Bush and George Tenet, then Director of the CIA. They were all watching satellite images of the U.S.’s drone bombing of Tora Bora in Eastern Afghanistan. One of its objectives was to smoke out bin Laden, but he was nowhere to be found. In May 2011, however, his luck ran out. Bin Laden was killed by a U.S. Navy Seal team in his compound in a remote city in Pakistan (Abbottabad).

There were a lot of challenges for Walder at the CIA, including attending something called, “Poison School!”  As a result, she quickly became an expert in the field of “chemical weapons.”

Walder’s time at the CIA often included: a seven-day week, exhaustion and homesickness. She occasionally felt isolated, too, and by the time she left the agency, at age 26, she admitted that she was “burned out.”

Nevertheless, Walder said her days at the CIA was an “incredible experience” and the bottom line was that “she loved it.” Of course, there was one exception. A creep, a fellow agent, who “reeked of cigarette smoke,” once referred to her as “Malibu Barbie.”

Her time with the FBI, all 15 months of it, however, wasn’t so positive. She labeled it a “boy’s club.” She was often the subject of bouts of sexism on the job.

None of that kept Walder from helping to catch two spies for Communist China. It was a husband-wife team, who was sending military secrets to China. It was one of the “biggest” counterintelligence cases for the FBI. Thanks to Walder’s expert sleuthing, both defendants were convicted on various offenses and did time in federal slammers.

After leaving the FBI, Walder taught history at a local all-girls school in Dallas, Texas. She also developed a course on terrorism and national security.

Walder admitted at the reading, that when she was growing up in California, that she didn’t read any “spy novels,” but she did love Nancy Drew. Recently, she decided to temporarily give up her teaching gig and to focus on her family responsibilities, which includes raising a young daughter and promoting her book.

Peter Bergen, the author of the book, “Manhunt,” which dealt with the ten-year search for Bin Laden, had something very positive to say about Walder’s initial literary effort. He wrote: “This is is a compelling and well-written memoir that takes the readers on a journey from the CIA’s “Farm” and its “black sites” to the FBI’s training academy.”

The Unexpected Spy is published by St. Martin Press, 249 pages (2020). I wouldn’t be surprised if Walder’s tome ends up also as a very successful “spy” movie and/or as a TV series.

Stay tuned.