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Photo courtesy of Tracy Walder

Unexpected Voices: Former CIA Spy to Speak at GSX 2023

During her career in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Tracy Walder was many things: an analyst, a field investigator, and an intelligence officer representing her country in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But she also recalls that she wanted to hold on to other parts of her identity—including the sorority girl from California.

“It was important to me because growing up, I never saw myself represented in any of these careers,” she says.

Much of this representation was an external practice for Walder when she was working for the agency overseas. She recalls learning she would be back in the United States, so Walder called her mother to ask her to make a hair appointment so she could touch up her roots. Immediately after hanging up the phone, Walder hid in the cargo space of an SUV, traveled through an undisclosed area in the Middle East, and readied herself to try to gain the trust of an al-Qaeda terrorist who could help thwart a planned attack.

“I needed it to feel like myself, to feel human,” Walder wrote in her memoir, The Unexpected Spy. “…My life felt upside down, and I needed just one thing to set me upright again, one thing to create a sense of normalcy. Even if that normalcy only extended to the ends of my hair.”



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While attending the University of Southern California, Walder noted that she initially imagined herself pursuing a career in education. That changed when she met a CIA recruiter at a career fair on campus.

She realized then that she wanted to not only teach history, but help create it, believing that she could do so in a career in national intelligence.

She would go on to join the agency and become a staff operations officer at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center Weapons of Mass Destruction Group. Her work would involve tracking chemical terrorists, including creating a chemical terror chart that someone in the White House altered to convey information she didn’t have or believe that led to the Iraq invasion.

And maintaining that sense of normalcy and sense of self became increasingly important as she found that security and intelligence were largely male-dominated industries.

“I don’t feel that I need to change myself and who I am to appease someone’s opinion of what an FBI agent or CIA officer should look like—that’s not my problem,” she says in her interview with GSX Daily.

Upon joining the CIA, Walder found value in having multiple perspectives and backgrounds represented on a team, especially when analyzing intelligence and data.

“If we look at President Lincoln with his cabinet…he purposefully staffed it with people who didn’t agree with him,” says Walder, who majored in history at USC. “I think if you have a whole bunch of people who are just yes-people, with the same perspective as you, how are you making decisions that are reflective of the American population?”

Walder notes that she has experienced other benefits to having different personas at the table.

“It makes you more tolerant of other people’s beliefs,” Walder says. “I don’t have to agree all the time with what people say, but they do have a right to their informed opinion. And I think it made for much better policy decisions.”

That tolerance also improved her own work, whether it was interrogating a member of a terrorist organization with information on a pending attack or working with counterparts from other intelligence agencies. Walder says that finding ways to connect with people—regardless of their own agendas or goals—helped in forwarding her mission.

“I think the best way to do that is to get to know them,” she says. “You have to get to know them, what makes them tick, what do they like, what do they not like, and almost develop—not a friendship—but some kind of rapport with them.”

After working with the CIA for more than four years, Walder found herself filling out an application to join the FBI. She joined the Bureau in 2004, specializing in Chinese counterintelligence operations.

“I loved the CIA. I had and still have incredible respect for the agency and the women and men who work there,” Walder wrote. “I believe in what they do and know for a fact that they are saving lives every day.”

Yet, despite what she saw as victories while on the job—such as coordinating with other law enforcement and intelligence agencies to arrest al-Qaeda terrorists before they could launch successful attacks or otherwise maim and kill people in Western and African nations—the attacks that were not prevented hit Walder very hard.

“I needed to save myself, too. I needed to have a home where I felt settled, safe, nested, where I could see my family more regularly,” Walder wrote. “More than that, I needed to let go of feeling responsible for every act of terror in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. It was a heartbreaking choice, but I made it.”

Since her government service, Walder has taken on other roles, including becoming a teacher, an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Texas Christian University, and a national security and crime analyst for National News Nation.

She will also be Wednesday’s keynote speaker at GSX 2023, where she’ll analyze the current geopolitical landscape from the viewpoint of a counterintelligence expert who has operated at the center of global conflict. Walder will speak to emerging security threats from China and the Middle East, as well as other hot-button topics.

For example, in an interview with the GSX Daily, she mentions the 2023 National Intelligence Strategy released by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

Of the goals listed in the strategy, Walder notes that the ODNI is looking into sharing more intelligence and information with private companies.

Increasing intelligence and information sharing with private organizations could have benefits. For instance, private companies that are often targeted by nation states—such as threat actors from China looking to steal intellectual property—might be better prepared to deal with those threats and mitigate their effects.

To reciprocate with the government’s efforts to defend against these attacks, however, “private companies need to probably do more in terms of budgeting for security clearances,” Walder says. She also noted in her book that engagement, understanding, listening, and connecting helped secure intelligence and helped others.

In that same vein, besides her keynote presentation on Wednesday, 13 September, Walder says that she is “looking forward to all the ideas and questions that people have because it always makes me think differently about the subject matter at hand.”

She still invites opportunities to change her mind, anticipating the new perspectives, trends, and advancements that she continues to encounter in post-government work.

For more insights from Tracy Walder, listen to her keynote address during the GSX general session on Wednesday, 13 September, at 11:15 a.m. CT. Walder’s book, The Unexpected Spy, will also be available for purchase in the ASIS Bookstore at GSX.

Sara Mosqueda is associate editor of Security Management, the publisher of the GSX Daily. Connect with her at [email protected] or on LinkedIn