As Amaryllis Fox’s memoir opens, she is walking through the back alleys of Karachi when she senses a man following her. What she doesn’t write then is that she has an infant daughter back home in Shanghai, cared for by her CIA undercover agent husband. Fox is also an undercover CIA agent but one who doesn’t travel on diplomatic passports or enjoy the protection or cover of embassies and consulates. These agents operate “in the field” as aid workers or businessman without any hint of government connection. In Fox’s case, her cover is a dealer in Asian, Middle Eastern, and African art.
The story starts and ends with this scene in Karachi; in between the reader learns not just about the inner workings of the CIA, but also what it’s like for a young woman to succeed as an undercover agent when no one from her outside life is aware of her job. Dating, marriage, and motherhood will always come second to the responsibilities of a CIA officer and Fox tries her best to juggle it all.
Fox spends almost a quarter of Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA showing how she came to work for the agency, which drags in places. Passages such as the 12-year old Fox running around Red Square and the Hermitage Gardens while visiting their father on business in Moscow are not uninteresting, but don’t seem so out of the ordinary for third culture children. It’s not until Fox takes a gap year before starting university at Oxford that her life veers into espionage.
She spends a year volunteering at a refugee camp along the Thai-Burmese border and befriends democratic activists from Burma who had escaped to Thailand in the late 1980s. Fox and a British acquaintance go into Burma in 1999 to clandestinely interview Aung San Suu Kyi, still under house arrest. Fox smuggles the film out of Burma, but not before she and her British acquaintance are detained—separately—overnight at the Rangoon airport. Life at Oxford proves not to be as exciting.
Fox is recruited by the CIA while in graduate school at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and begins work before she graduates. She’s soon made an NOC (non-official cover) undercover agent and sent to infiltrate Jemaah Islamiyah, the al Qa’ida-linked group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings.
The dilemmas of being a woman in the CIA appear just before she starts NOC training, when her boyfriend back in the UK wants to move to the US to be with her. He doesn’t know about her work and it’s against regulations for agents to live with or marry people who are not first vetted by the CIA. To her boyfriend’s surprise, Fox leads him from Dulles Airport upon his arrival to a polygraph test administered by the CIA. The marriage is short-lived as her husband grows despondent over her absence while she’s in training.
But marrying someone in the CIA proves no less problematic. On her second marriage to another NOC agent, Fox is (somewhat incongruously) sent to Shanghai to be based there for her Jemaah Islamiyah missions. This means that her husband is taken off of his duties in the mountains of Afghanistan; he soon longs to be back in the war. When the couple’s child, Zoe, is born, Fox continues to work and takes her daughter with her.
I run foreign surveillance detection routes with her strapped to my chest. Take notes after secret car meetings with her snoring gently under my chin, tuck papers into concealment devices stuffed with her diapers to relay back to HQS [CIA headquarters] via my covert communications device in the darkness of home. Each time, I weigh the danger of wherever I’m going against the danger of leaving my infant daughter without me in a hostile country, where the housekeeper works for the security service.
But when she’s sent to Pakistan to negotiate with terrorists who are planning to bomb a street corner near the Karachi Press Club, she can’t take her daughter and it causes her to reassess whether she really can have it all in the CIA.
While in Pakistan, she thinks of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal bureau chief who was beheaded by terrorists there, an event which inspired her life’s work in counter-terrorism. We first read of her association with Pearl back when she’s in Oxford.
Danny’s been a writing hero of mine for a couple of years now. I scarcely know him, but we’ve crossed paths a few times—in D.C., while I was in high school and he was just starting out at The Wall Street Journal, and later in Southeast Asia, as I began to cut my teeth and he offered gentle advice on my stories.
She will write about him here and there throughout the rest of the book; because Pearl’s murder made international headlines, the reader is left wanting to know more about their interaction in Asia when she was at the refugee camps and writing about the Burmese activists.
Fox almost perfects the art of caution while overseas, but she also learns to be careful in her work after returning home. Even the USA has censors. One might wonder, then, about Fox’s detailed descriptions of CIA operations, and it’s something she poses to herself at the end of her memoir.
What will happen if I tell the world the truth? Spill the most secret of secrets: that all the soldiers and spies, all the belching, booming armored juggernauts of war, all the terror groups and all the rouge states, that we’re all just pretending to be fierce because we’re all on fire with fear. What will happen if I speak those words out loud?
CIA agents need approval for book content from the Agency’s Publications Review Board before they publish non-fiction titles about their work. Fox had kept the Review Board informed of her memoir while she was writing it, but as of October 2019, just ahead of her publication date, her publisher had not heard back from the Review Board. The US government sued Edward Snowden when he wrote his book, so Fox and her publisher regard the Review Board’s silence as tacit approval.
One reason for apparent lack of disapproval is that Fox shows a more humane side of intelligence. She writes, “I’ve come to advocate for recruiting adversaries to our side rather than stealing information or material without the target’s knowledge.” She sees her job as promoting peace, not destabilizing governments, as the CIA has is often accused of doing.