Amaryllis Fox caught the eye of the CIA while studying international security at Georgetown University.
She dug up decades of data on every known domestic and international terrorist attack, searching for unnoticed patterns. Fox then developed an algorithm that identifies likely terrorist safe havens.
The CIA offered her an analyst job when she was 21. She later became a field agent traveling across the globe.
Her memoir, “Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA,” opens as Fox takes readers to the streets of Karachi, Pakistan, and details a life that’s hyper-paced, dangerous and at times requires assuming alias identities.
Written with the feel of a spy novel, the former spy’s book offers a salient and dynamic window into who works to keep America (and the world) safe.
“We’re impossibly young to have the fate of the world in our hands,” she writes halfway through her story. “But such is the way of the Agency. By thirty-five, any operative worth their salt has gone hard enough at their job to erode their cover.”
Born in New York, Fox now lives in Los Angeles with her current husband, Robert F. Kennedy III, the grandson of RFK, and her children. At age 39, she looks back on an espionage career that ended in 2010.
When Fox was a child, her father worked as an economist and frequently moved the family overseas. This lent her a worldliness not experienced by many children and gave her a leg up in learning how to thrive as a global nomad.
She attended Oxford University in England and then enrolled in a master’s program at Georgetown.
Once she joined the CIA, Fox says her first job involved analyzing hundreds of classified cables for inclusion in the president’s daily briefing.
She later passed through a grueling training program in Virginia nicknamed “The Farm” and married a fellow CIA agent. The couple relocated to Shanghai, China, and had a daughter there. Both she and her then-husband, Fox writes, posed as art dealers and lived in an apartment with a Chinese government spy masquerading as a maid.
During eight years at the agency, Fox worked her way up the intelligence community ladder, clearly thriving in a world of coverup and chaos.
Detailing various assignments, Fox says she helped locate prisoners held by an international terrorist group, debriefed dangerous detainees one-on-one and negotiated with arms dealers to purchase biological and chemical weapons on the global black market.
She writes about interactions with a Hungarian arms dealer that she says ultimately leads to a high-stakes meetup with a terrorist cell in Karachi that agents suspect may be preparing to unleash a radioactive, or “dirty,” bomb. “Dirty bombs are more a tool of mass disruption than mass destruction,” Fox writes.
What helps her negotiate such a delicate situation, she says, is a lesson she learned at age 8, when her best friend was killed in the 1988 terrorist bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. At the time, her father gave her newspaper clippings about the attack, hoping that a better understanding of a threat would make it less fearful. It’s something she incorporates in her operative work; her goal, she says, isn’t to destroy but to understand the enemy.
As Fox enters the meeting with the arms dealer, she writes, she is surprised to see him holding an infant who appears to be struggling with asthma. To help the child, Fox says she whipped out clove oil she kept handy for her own daughter, providing a momentary bonding with the terrorist.
Days later, she learns that the feared attack never occurred. She believes she played a role: “I think of the dusty room and the wheezing baby. I think of her dad, making choices to protect her — from pollution and air strikes and drones. I think about how everybody believes that they are the good guy. And how the trick of the thing is seeing that, from one angle or another, we all actually are.”
During her career, she traveled to North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere and eventually found herself performing some duties with her young daughter in tow. That is, until she began to reconsider the emotional and physical costs of a career in espionage.
No longer with the agency, she’s married to her third husband and now works as a media analyst, providing commentary on world affairs for CNN and the BBC. Actor Brie Larson has signed on as producer and star of an upcoming drama series based on Fox’s book for the new Apple TV+ streaming service.
As with most things related to the CIA, clarifications and confirmations are tough to come by, so there’s no official response to “Undercover.”
Fox says she wrote the book to showcase the danger, struggles and significant sacrifices faced by those who sign up for America’s covert agencies. It’s a timely, compelling story. As fellow citizens, we’d all do well to better understand what that vital work entails.
Knopf: 240 pages, $26.95
Kinosian is a Southern California journalist, author and longtime Times contributor.