Some former CIA agents question the veracity of “Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA,” by Amaryllis Fox, which hits stores in October.
By Ken Dilanian
WASHINGTON — A former CIA officer who says she spent years under deep cover has written what appears to be one of the most revealing memoirs ever put to paper by an American intelligence operative — a book so intriguing that Apple bought the television rights even before its October publication date.
But the book, “Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA,” by Amaryllis Fox, has become embroiled in dual controversies.
Some former CIA officers who have learned about its contents are questioning its veracity, saying key details don’t ring true. Some are casting doubt on the book’s climactic scene, Fox’s recounting of a dramatic solo meeting she says she had in Karachi, Pakistan, with al Qaeda-linked extremists.
And, in an extraordinary move, Fox submitted her memoir to publisher Knopf Doubleday without getting approval from the CIA’s Publication Review Board, in violation of the nondisclosure agreement every agency officer signs, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the matter. That agreement says the CIA must review anything a former officer writes about intelligence matters to insure that she is not revealing secrets or endangering lives.
The CIA says it must complete the review before the material is “shared with publishers, blog-subscribers, a TV audience, ghost-writers, co-authors, editors, family members, assistants, representatives, or anyone else not authorized to receive or review such classified information.” (Fox has given the manuscript to the agency but has not received approval for publication.)
The CIA had no immediate comment.
Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Knopf Doubleday, told NBC News, “Fox has written a rich and resonant work about the path one takes, and the duty one assumes, to live a life of service and honor to country.”
An excerpt of the book has appeared in Vogue magazine, and a review copy has circulated widely, including to NBC News. It contains the sort of details the CIA has censored from previous memoirs.
For example, Fox writes about posing as an international art dealer while living in Shanghai and seeking to infiltrate nuclear weapons procurement networks in Europe and the Middle East. She offers details about how the CIA uses secret software — “covcom,” for covert communications” — to message sources in foreign countries. She describes disguises, surveillance avoidance techniques and how the CIA obtained false identifications from motor vehicle and passport agencies.
The details are particularly sensitive because Fox says she operated under nonofficial cover, meaning she posed as a private citizen, not a diplomat. So-called NOCs put themselves at greater risk because they lack diplomatic immunity and can be arrested and jailed if caught spying. The CIA doesn’t discuss how it uses NOCs. Nor does the agency typically allow officers to name countries in which they operated, other than war zones.
Fox, who is now married to a grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, acknowledged to NBC News that the advance copy did not have final approval from the CIA, but she said she submitted a manuscript more than a year ago and the agency has so far requested only minor changes that she agreed to. She said she will make further changes to the final version to mollify agency censors.
“They know where to find me,” she said. “They have had a copy for over a year, and they have never identified a single sentence or section they wanted to redact.”
She said in a telephone interview that she changed certain facts to protect national security, including names, places and “operational details.”
But she said any fictionalization was mostly inconsequential.
“My aim was really to capture the kind of ‘Capital T’ Truth, the emotional truth of going through this transformation,” she said, speaking of her emotional journey as she came to empathize with some of the people the CIA was hunting and killing. “And that is something you can do and still maintain accuracy by not only changing names and places but by having compelling characters and situations I met along the way without identifying them directly.”
Fox said two of the characters in the book “have composite characteristics to mask their identities.”
The fact that Fox’s book was submitted to her publisher without the agency’s approval was first reported Thursday by Yashar Ali in his newsletter.
Fox, who says she served roughly from 2002 to 2010, says her book is largely a positive portrayal of the CIA, an ode to the unsung heroes of the intelligence world.
Current and former CIA officials confirmed that Fox worked for the CIA, though all contacted by NBC News were either unfamiliar with or unwilling to discuss the details of her career.
She writes that she was recruited while a graduate student at Georgetown University after she developed an algorithm that predicted the likelihood that an area would be used as a terrorist safe haven.
She provided NBC News with a copy of her thesis, but her thesis adviser, the terrorism expert Dan Byman, told NBC News he did not recall the algorithm but did remember that Fox was a bright and capable student.
Fox says she was helped into the agency by Dallas Jones, who was then the CIA analyst in residence at Georgetown. A person familiar with Jones’s account says he did help her get hired at the agency.
Fox writes that she spent a stint as an analyst at CIA headquarters before being recruited into what was then known as the National Clandestine Service, the CIA’s operations arm — the division that spies overseas.
According to her book, she was sent to the agency training base in Virginia known as the Farm, where she learned how to spot surveillance, develop rapport with potential sources, and shoot an M4 rifle.
She says she was assigned to the section of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center that focuses on terrorist’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction — CTC/WMD, in agency parlance.
Fox writes that she was allowed to design her own non-official cover, and she picked the art world because her family had ties to it.
She ultimately was sent to live in Shanghai, she writes, not to spy there, but to bolster her cover as an art dealer and disassociate herself from Washington. She says she lived with her husband, Dean Fox, a CIA case officer who served in Afghanistan.
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