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A Most Wanted Woman

Patriotism, Class, and the CIA

PUBLISHED: March 2, 2020

<i>Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA</i>. By Amaryllis Fox. Knopf, 2020.240. HB, $26.95.
Early in Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s Watergate-era psychedelic detective novel, there’s a moment where the protagonist, Doc Sportello, laments the rise of the law-and-order cop TV show like Dragnet and The Mod Squad, inveighing against them as “pro-cop fucking mind control.” Later, in a tirade redolent with pot smoke, Sportello adds that “the tube is saturated with fuckin cop shows, just being regular guys, only tryin to do their job, folks, no more threat to nobody’s freedom than some dad in a sitcom. Right. Get the viewer population so cop-happy they’re beggin to be run in.” Despite President Trump’s fatuous protests about the “Deep State,” we seem to be in a similar place with respect to entertainment relating to the intelligence community, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in particular. To wit: The breakout hit for Amazon’s streaming service for 2018 was Jack Ryan with nearly 40 percent of all Amazon Prime customers streaming the show. The bestselling video game of 2019 was the CIA-themed Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, a first-person shooter that generated more than 600 million dollars in sales in its first three days. 

What both of these extraordinarily profitable franchises allow people to do is to watch and play out sequences from Zero Dark Thirty in microcosm, reliving a version of the global war on terror that exists in the minds of many Americans—that of the Western, the OK Corral as seen through night-vision goggles, alternately foiling international terror plots or moving from room to room flushed with adrenaline while you murder the bad guys over and over again. They are, among other things, products of the same military-entertainment complex that brought us American Sniper, the most profitable Clint Eastwood film ever made—a film screenwriter Jason Hall admitted without shame he thought of as Western. Like American Sniper, neither Jack Ryan nor Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has anything new or interesting to say, so the question becomes: What does this wave of CIA-themed entertainment mean exactly for this, the latter days of the American Empire, the third act of the war on terror? Is it, as Pynchon would have it, a post-9/11 form of “pro-cop mind control,” or is it something more benign, a kind of blood-soaked cultural comfort food for the Trump era, a way of reliving past battles and traumas? More to the point, how exactly has the flailing agency that failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks; failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union; and brought us MK-Ultra, Iran-Contra, “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation techniques” managed to successfully re-brand itself to the point that it now constitutes one of our culture’s most mythologized institutions?

I would suggest that the primary reason for this is a morally illiterate, sycophantic Hollywood establishment, desperate for patriotic material that will make money. Spies, denizens of what John le Carré called “the secret world,” have long fascinated viewers, going back to the height of the Cold War with the James Bond franchise, a series of films which infused that world of intelligence with a glamour that rendered it almost completely unrecognizable to any actual, working British intelligence agents. What makes spy dramas all the more alluring for Hollywood is the element of seduction inherent in the spying game, along with their ability to depict war in a coed fashion. Put another way, there are no women in the Navy SEALs and setting a story in the intelligence milieu tends to result in films that score well on the Bechdel Test (a scale developed by cartoonist Allison Bechdel in 1985 that evaluates narrative works of art on their sexism). Given the fact that movies that score well on the Bechdel Test also generally perform quite well at the box office, it is perhaps unsurprising that two of the most lauded and successful Hollywood war on terror–themed franchises of late have been Showtime’s Homeland starring Claire Danes as a CIA officer suffering from manic-depression, and Zero Dark Thirty, the Oscar-winning 2012 film that depicts the hunt for Osama bin Laden, described by a female professor friend of mine as possessing “the ultimate Bechdel Test character,” that of Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. 

The latest chapter in America’s Bechdel-ian love affair with the CIA is led by Amaryllis Fox’s new memoir, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA, one of a wave of recent memoirs written by recently retired female CIA officers, including The Targeter: My Life in the CIA, Hunting Terrorists and Challenging the White House by Nada Bakos and 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 and Jessica Anya Blau. While it might be tempting to dismiss these memoirs as anomalies of the #MeToo era, with their knowing and self-conscious feminism, that would be a mistake. As Gina Haspel, the CIA’s first female director said last April, “It’s a great time to be a woman at the agency. Setting aside my own position, the head of operations is a woman, the head of analysis is a woman, the head of science and technology is a woman. You might sense a conspiracy here.” Given the roaring success of Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty, it isn’t surprising that Apple bought the television rights to Fox’s memoir before it even hit bookshelves in October. 

Life Undercover tells the story of a scion of a transatlantic Washington family who was recruited by CIA during her graduate studies at Georgetown. The first half of the book describes Fox’s private-school education and a volunteer trip she took in 1999 to Burma that culminated in Fox interviewing the dissident Aung San Suu Kyi for the BBC at age eighteen. Once inside the agency, Fox was selected for the elite Clandestine Service—the veritable sanctum sanctorum—eventually winning a coveted assignment working under “nonofficial cover,” meaning she would essentially be operating independently without the support of a US embassy. The second half of the book describes her work in various global hot spots trying to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons. As Fox never fails to remind readers, she was the best at anything she ever tried, graduating at the top of her class from Oxford, Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and the CIA’s Clandestine Service training school, aka “the Farm.” If, as had been noted by David Remnick, Cold War espionage was often conducted as an extension of British boarding-school days, then war-on-terror espionage, in Fox’s experience, is arguably an extension of certain East Coast schools such as Georgetown, Tufts, Johns Hopkins, and the National Cathedral School for Girls, where Fox attended. 

Apart from the fact that the author is a woman retired intelligence officer, Life Undercover is nearly identical to every recent memoir written by a Washington insider and robotically adheres to the conventions of the genre, which is to say the book serves as a kind of narrated résumé. The author grows up humbly, the product of hardworking, well-educated parents, attends a series of astronomically expensive private schools filled with the offspring of other identically hardworking, well-educated parents, when, seemingly out of nowhere, 9/11 happens. Fox, as every writer working in this genre explains sotto voce, was shocked and appalled by the attacks of 9/11. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, the towers fell and suddenly everything is made clear; a few pages later she is applying to work for CIA. Like all Beltway memoirs, Fox’s is an unwitting study of ambition, breeding, and class told through a series of self-serving vignettes. 

Walking into CIA headquarters at Langley, we are treated to a series of screen-ready scenes, seemingly stolen from a prequel to Homeland. Fox writes, “When I report to headquarters (HQS) the following week, I run my hand along the section of the Berlin Wall in the parking lot as I walk from my car. I stop to read the inscription under the statue of Nathan Hale outside the main door: ‘I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.’ Inside, I walk across the giant marble seal and stop at the wall of stars, one for each officer killed in the line of duty.” 

Fox’s memoir continues in this vein without a breath, nor a trace of irony or skepticism, for roughly another 150 pages. CIA training is “grueling,” the pace of work “frenetic,” the missions categorically dangerous, her colleagues uniformly dedicated. Everyone works killer hours and is addicted to caffeine, as well as (so it seems) their own ambition. What sets Fox’s memoir apart is that she is a gifted writer of sentences, with a special talent for similes. Describing her fraught relationship with her CIA officer-husband while both are undercover in China, she writes, “I can’t ask him any of this aloud, because the walls are listening. So I shift to the world of double meaning. A touch on the wrist here, a coded reference there. And in response, his voice changes, a hardness creeps in. It’s like attempting communication inside a Dalí painting, with every detail interpretable a dozen ways and no master glossary to keep us from traveling universes apart.”

One of the great flaws of American society is a rigid class system that guides our lives at every step, strangling social mobility and ensuring that we attend the same schools that our parents did. While Fox’s mother was British and saw fit to send her to a British boarding school, the great flaw of Fox’s book is her seemingly willful blindness to her own class, the CIA, and, by extension, the nature of the society she is nominally protecting. I raise this perhaps peevish complaint because the best spy literature—not to mention the best war literature—has always confronted such contextual factors. One of le Carré’s greatest strengths was his willingness write about the spy world as nothing more than a direct reflection of England itself, with all its attendant blemishes, its class obsessions and its blind spots (Kim Philby, anyone?). What else was British intelligence during the Cold War but an insular, inbred, homophobic service bent on preserving what it could of a crumbling empire? How else to explain the willingness to leverage the American cousins’ money and power in 1952, when British intelligence hatched a plot to topple the Mossadeq regime in Iran in order to maintain ready access to cheap oil? 

As le Carré wrote in his breakout novel The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, “We do disagreeable things, but we are defensive…. We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night. Is that too romantic? Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things.” These wicked acts, le Carré observes, end up looking almost exactly like the enemy’s wicked acts, in a way not unlike CIA’s waterboarding program, unwittingly modeled after the Chinese technique used on American POWs during the Korean War, “Our methods—ours and those of the opposition—have become much the same. I mean you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now? That would never do.”

Tellingly, Fox doesn’t seem too interested in meditating on the wilderness of mirrors that is the spying world, nor does she seem inclined to dwell much on the nature of the war on terror (now into its nineteenth year), nor what it has done to American society, turning us into a country that spends ever more on armaments while our infrastructure crumbles. Instead, Fox focuses on the technical details of tradecraft—how certain Cold Warriors still seemed stuck in the analog age, using chalk marks to indicate drop sites, when newer digital techniques would have been more efficient. 

All this breathless, Netflix-ready prose makes me wish that Fox had waited a decade or so before writing this book. Indeed, as a scholar of PTSD, I am tempted to say that Fox is only now beginning to get some perspective on what she has been a part of, is only now starting to perceive the personal costs of giving one’s life to the institutions of empire—though I doubt she would put it in such terms. To Fox, the work of managing informants and cultivating turncoats is somehow “soulful,” a word that she uses repeatedly in her memoir and in numerous interviews she’s given recently. However one describes it, being a spy is a line of work, like all forms of soldiering, that tends to exact a high price on its practitioners. As le Carré put it in his valedictory novel The Secret Pilgrim written after the fall of the Berlin Wall, “By being all things to all spies, one does rather run the risk of becoming nothing to oneself.”

Nevertheless, in accounting for her years as a spy, Fox is able to tally part of the emotional toll and how it tends to corrode one’s capacity for intimacy. Shortly after beginning a new assignment tracking WMDs, she laments, “Reality gets more and more distant, obscured by the ever-thicker veil of my new cover. I take my first trip under its protection and then my second. At the beginning, I run through the details obsessively during each flight, preparing for possible grilling at customs when I land. But soon I come to slip in and out of it more easily, like a softening pair of shoes. The real world feels farther and farther away. My annulment with Anthony [her first husband] is finalized, and the papers sit in an unopened envelope on my kitchen table.” Add this to the appeals of spy-themed entertainment—the duplicities of spying and of romance are more similar than they might appear at first, and while the stakes are vastly different, they both retain a similar theme: All lies come at a cost and the bill never comes when you think it will. 

That Fox sacrificed her early adulthood to the clandestine world goes without saying. That she did so not for money, not for glory, not for public prestige but out of a love of country is likewise somewhat obvious. It strikes me that, as Michael Herr said of Vietnam, spying was what Fox had instead of a happy childhood. What remains less clear is what she, or any CIA employee of recent memory, for that matter, has actually achieved. Certainly, it is worth remembering there have been no more major terrorist attacks in the United States. Osama bin Laden is dead. Beyond these two facts—important as they are—Fox’s (and the CIA’s) record is far less distinguished. Iraq remains a disaster—a disaster created by the United States. The war in Afghanistan remains a stalemate. Iran is stronger than it’s ever been. Much of America’s postwar legacy has been squandered, lost to the sorrows of empire. That Fox doesn’t dwell on the legacy of CIA’s role in the war on terror seems more than mere oversight—her book is a Beltway memoir, after all, and like all Beltway memoirs, one’s career and the adventure that was had along the way is the entire point. 

It was George Clemenceau who said, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” The same might be said of spies and war. In Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept, we are treated to a fictional account of how the Cold War CIA sought to undermine Soviet society through that most subversive of weapons systems—the novel. 

Based on real-life events, The Secrets We Kept tells the story of the publication of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, first published in Italy in 1957 and later in the Soviet Union, in an attempt to undermine the Red Empire through a work of art that depicted the social flaws of the country. The novel opens with an account of life in the CIA typists’ pool in the 1950s and flits between Washington, London, Siberia, Milan, and Moscow. The early chapters, while ably rendered, occasionally read like an early draft of a Mad Men pilot. The women-typists are skilled, hardworking, and overqualified; the men lecherous, boorish, and insufferable. As Prescott explains early on, “We came to the Agency by way of Radcliffe, Vassar, Smith. We were the first daughters of our families to earn degrees. Some of us spoke Mandarin. Some of us could fly planes. Some of us handle a Colt 1873 better than John Wayne. But all we were asked when interviewed was ‘Can you type?’”

In time, certain members of the typists’ pool end up working as couriers, ferrying drafts of the novel across Europe and picking up microfilm copies of Doctor Zhivago in shadowy corners of Washington, DC. Like Life Undercover, Prescott’s novel depicts the invaluable and underappreciated contributions that women have made to the CIA over the years, but it excels where Fox’s memoir fails in contextualizing the espionage drama. What makes parts of Prescott’s debut work invigorating is its dramatization of events that have been almost completely overlooked in the fictional versions of the CIA predominant in most novels and movies—that of assassins in tuxedos. 

What Prescott serves up is an account of how the US vied against the Soviet Union in the realm of cultural supremacy. This campaign to highlight the fruits of free expression in the West took on many forms, beginning with Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington’s State Department–sponsored tour of the Warsaw Pact in 1955. This was part of a broader campaign to defeat the Soviets in the battlespace where spies could never go—in to the minds of Soviet readers. As Prescott’s narrator explains, “The Agency wanted to stack its ranks with intellectuals—those who believed in the long game of changing people’s ideology over time. And they believed books could do it. That was my job: to designate books for exploitation and help carry out their covert dissemination. It was my job to secure books that made the Soviets look bad: books they banned, books that criticized the system, books that made the United States look like a shining beacon.”

What emerges most powerfully in The Secrets We Kept is not an examination of the moral ambiguities of Cold War espionage à la le Carré, but a rather straightforward dramatization of how three women came to be drawn into the secret world of the CIA at the height of the Cold War. The novel, while earnest and thoughtfully paced, does suffer from a sort of #MeToo ahistoricism, treating us to scene after scene of loutish male behavior, some of it so self-consciously rendered that it strains credulity. There is a good amount of perfectly sound moralizing about the indecency of men and the system’s seemingly infinite tolerance for it, but the sophistication and euphemism and victim self-blame that one might reasonably expect from a great novel dealing with 1950s America is simply not there. Reading it, I felt like parts of it had been written while the author was watching the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. The story is richly detailed and researched and I have no doubt that Prescott did her homework, but the depiction of gender relations just feels a bit overly simplistic at times and detracts from an otherwise immersive reading experience. 

In the end, the good guys are victorious. Doctor Zhivago makes its way into Soviet Russia. In time a film adaptation is made. The Berlin Wall crumbles, the Soviet Union collapses. How the good guys (and girls) handled such a victory remains uncertain, however. The Cold War, if we are to treat it honestly, was a time when America’s openness and diversity triumphed over Soviet Communism despite America’s massive moral failures—the Vietnam War being but one easy example. On the one hand, it was an outward contest against an obvious foe, but it was also an inner contest with ourselves—one that continues to this day—a contest dominated by a few vexing questions: Can the capitalist West, with its Darwinian sense of the market, save itself from its worst excesses? Can a society that is increasingly dominated by the social media–savvy and the telegenic survive in some form recognizable to the Founding Fathers, or will it become merely a shiny, friendlier, convenience-driven version of the dystopia envisioned by George Orwell? Cold War fiction is on people’s minds these days and The Secrets We Kept is a great reminder why: It shows in loving detail how far we’ve fallen as well as how far we’ve climbed.  


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