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Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA – Amaryllis Fox

by Venky

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The next time you watch with gawking eyes and gaping mouth, an undercover agent leapfrog between buildings, parkour narrow alleyways, dart in and out of cramped favellas, navigate bustling street markets, before divesting a bewildered motorist of his Suzuki Hayabusa, and speeding away to safety, all the while firing off a fusillade of bullets from his sleek Glock, think again. Your quintessential spy is more John Le Carré’s prosaic and scheming George Smiley than Robert Ludlum’s adrenaline fueled Jason Bourne. If your conviction is still influenced and swayed by the latest installment in the Mission Impossible series, I would humbly direct you to this fantastic memoir by Amaryllis Fox, a former top notch CIA operative.

Handpicked for higher deeds by the agency when she was all of 21, Ms. Fox’s tumultuous and eventful stint at the premier intelligence agency of The United States of America was the nub of her memoir when she turned 39. Born to a peripatetic Economist father and a resolute mother (who was left to fend and tend Amaryllis and her younger sibling Ben), Amaryllis made it to Oxford University. Even while a student a rebellious and reckless streak in her made her undertake dangerous covert and socialist espionage missions in Burma (now Myanmar) which was being roiled by an internal crisis, one which saw Au Sang Suu Kyi being imprisoned and thousands of democratic rebels mowed down mercilessly. Hiding interview tapes in cylindrical pens, Amaryllis blew the lid on the atrocities of the Burmese Junta.

Her initial mellow stint in the CIA involved poring over hundreds of classified cables and selecting the more important ones for the President’s daily briefing. The internal peace and quiet was soon shattered when Amaryllis was put through an incredible grueling training stint at “The Farm” in Langley. But Amaryllis illustrates in a very poignant and emotive manner the perils that are attached to leading a life shrouded in absolute secrecy. She is allowed to disclose the nature of her profession to her boyfriend only after she agrees to marry him (a CIA requirement), and her fiancé undergoes a lie detector test at a CIA office. The wedding unfortunately does not last, and Amaryllis remarries one of her intelligence counterparts.

A dangerous assignment to intercept a dreaded Hungarian arm’s dealer and lure him to defect takes Amaryllis to the perilous mountains of Pakistan. The contours of the operation are however hatched in Shanghai where the apartment inhabited by the two intelligence officers is subjected to round the clock surveillance, bugged till kingdom come and tended to by a servant who is a plant of the Chinese intelligence forces. Amaryllis delivers her daughter in Shanghai and in one spontaneously moving display of reciprocal empathy, she is told by the housekeeper that the “second floor bathroom is silent” when she tries to talk to her daughter about how helpless she feels as a mother. The silence of the bathroom is a cleverly disguised message conveying the fact that the washroom is clean of listening and viewing devices.  

The most riveting passages in the book deal with the encounter between Amaryllis and Jakab, the Hungarian who supplies arms to extremist groups in a clandestine manner. This meeting takes her right into the heart of a terror cell in Karachi, a dark and cramped house inhabited by three ominous looking men, a docile woman and a baby with a running nose. Weapons of death in the form of M4 submachine guns are cradled against the wall. Learning about the asthmatic condition ailing the baby, Amaryllis digs into her bag and fishes out a bottle of clove oil. “I am also a mother” she reveals. Succeeding in striking a bond with the killers she makes an impassioned plea for them to desist from carrying out a potentially deadly attack using a “dirty bomb” (a makeshift radioactive bomb) scheduled to rock the heart of Karachi in a few days.

Days after she leaves Karachi, Amaryllis learns that the planned attack never took place. “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”, mulls Amaryllis reminiscing about her role in preventing such a dastardly attack.

At the time of this writing, Amaryllis, married for the third time, is employed as an expert on current affairs with both CNN and BBC. A drama series based on “Undercover” and starring Brie Larson is all set to hit the screen in the near future.

“Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA” is a rollicking story of a courageous woman who even while working in some of the most hostile environments the planet has ever seen, never forgot the astounding possibilities that could be effected by using the extremely effective and benevolent weapon of empathy.

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