Episode 6



What happened on 9/11 inside The Vault, the CIA's top-secret bunker? Tracy Walder was there as a rookie operative tasked with hunting the world's most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, and shares her story with True Spies.
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True Spies Episode 6: The Rookie and bin Laden

NARRATOR: This is True Spies Episode 6: The Rookie And bin Laden. Who are the spies you can trust with the most vital missions, like searching out the world’s most wanted terrorist, from your country’s most secretive operation center? Being the best just isn’t enough. You need composure too. To stay calm.

TRACY WALDER: Any fear, any panic, sadness, guilt. It's okay to have those feelings, but you have to put them away when you're at work.

NARRATOR: In the eye of a storm.

TRACY WALDER: Once I saw the second plane hit and I saw that it was a large Boeing airplane, I think then I was like: “Okay, this is some kind of a terrorist attack.” I was not scared. No panic. I'm not a big panicker. If you let your emotions completely overcome you, you can make a very, very bad mistake.

NARRATOR: And all the while act with complete integrity.

TRACY WALDER: The main job of the CIA is that you need to be trusted with secret information. So, even to this day, sometimes it's really difficult to talk about some of the specifics of the program that I worked on because many portions of it - and the program in its entirety - still remain classified. 

NARRATOR: Who on earth would you turn to for a mission like that? Well, how about a rookie? This is the story of how a new recruit was selected for a highly secretive - and to this day still classified - CIA program, only to have her first day on the team turn into tragedy and arguably the greatest-ever challenge to America’s intelligence community: 9/11 and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

TRACY WALDER: My name is Tracy Walder. I'm a former CIA spy and special agent with the FBI, and if you look at me and you look at my past, there's really nothing that would have indicated to anyone that this would have been a life path for me. I had wanted to become a teacher - probably since about fifth or sixth grade - particularly a history teacher. I loved history. I loved learning everything about it. And I had gone to college with really every intention of becoming a history teacher. Before the CIA came into my life, I didn't have a lot of confidence. I was somewhat shy. I was vice president of my sorority. I loved going to football games and I was a history major at USC. I really hung out a lot with my sorority sisters.

NARRATOR: Now if you’re not familiar with the world of sorority houses, think about any classic college movie you’ve ever seen.

TRACY WALDER: If anyone here has seen the movie Legally Blonde, that movie was actually filmed in my sorority house while I was living there. So, you're talking very much Southern plantation style with a big, huge spiral staircase.

NARRATOR: College days. Frisbees. Parties. Beer pong. And Osama bin Laden?

TRACY WALDER: In 1997, I remember being in my room in the sorority house watching CNN. And two gentlemen, Peter Bergen and Peter Arnett, were interviewing this individual in a cave. And I remember during the course of that conversation, he issued his Fatwa, or declaration of war against the United States. But he also discussed his hatred of Jews. And so, being Jewish, that obviously piqued my curiosity and attracted my attention, and I wanted to find out more about this. I became very, very interested in terrorism, - terrorism both in the United States and outside of the United States.

NARRATOR: A seed had been sown. And then, another random moment that would alter Tracy’s life forever.

TRACY WALDER: One day my roommate had decided that she was going to go to a career fair, and I actually had a class around that time. And on my way to class, I happened to have a few copies of my resume on me that day. And she said: “Let's just ride down the main thoroughfare together. I'll drop off my resume and we’ll go to class together.” And so, I felt that that was a great idea. She was spending a really long time at the table where she dropped off her resume and - I was not getting annoyed, but just - I needed something to do. I saw that there was a table. And it said: Central Intelligence Agency. And, at that time, nothing had exposed me to the CIA. I'm not even entirely sure that I knew that it was a career path.

NARRATOR: But Tracy did know that the CIA might be the kind of organization that would go after terrorists.

TRACY WALDER: And so, I went up to it and there was a recruiter there, and I remember saying: “Well, I'm, I'm just a history major. I'm probably not of any use to you.” And he said: “There's really a place for all majors here. You really should drop off your resume.” So, I left him my resume. I went back, I got my friend, and we went on to class. And I don't think I thought any more about it than that.

NARRATOR: Was it possible, in just that briefest of exchanges, the CIA recruitment agent had spotted something in Tracy that separated her from the crowd? Well, being able to make instant assessments is a crucial skill for any intelligence operative. Well, just a few weeks later...

TRACY WALDER: My roommate and I were reading magazines and the phone rang. It was my recruiter saying that he wanted to bring me to an in-person interview.

NARRATOR: Tracy was being selected for CIA recruitment. But if you want to be a spy for the CIA you don’t just sit down for a job interview. There’s also the small matter of polygraph testing.

TRACY WALDER: I think what we're used to seeing in pop culture, you hook up a perpetrator to a polygraph to determine whether or not they committed the crime or are lying about it. But at the CIA the goal of the polygraph test is actually to see if you could potentially fall victim to being recruited to spy and be a traitor. 

NARRATOR: The CIA, like any agency running spies, need to know if their operatives have any skeletons hiding in their closets - anything that could be used against them in the future for blackmailing them into being a double agent, for example.

TRACY WALDER: So I actually didn't have too much of an issue taking a polygraph test for a job interview. I knew the main job of the CIA is that you need to be trusted with secret information. 

NARRATOR: And for the shy, introverted Tracy, who would rather stay home watching CNN than be out partying, surely there wasn’t anything lurking in her past?

TRACY WALDER: When I took my polygraph test, to be perfectly honest, I actually wasn't nervous for it I was, I guess what you would call a ‘goody two-shoes’. And so I had approached it with the mentality of: “Oh, there's nothing I've done wrong. I've never broken the law. This will be very simple.” 

NARRATOR: But polygraphs are never that simple. Some agencies, like the British Secret Intelligence Service, say that they don’t work in uncovering lies. But maybe that’s not the whole point. It’s also about endurance. Because, as we’ve heard in this series already, they can be a long and grueling process, so much so that trained agents from the State Department refuse to even sit them. 

TRACY WALDER: It's an hours-long process, which I did not know. And the question that I was having issues with was whether or not I had ever [taken] an illicit drug - and I never have done an illicit drug, even to this day. I've actually never done an illicit drug. But what happened was, the polygrapher kept asking me the question over and over and over again. And I think what happens, at that point, is your body starts to get frustrated. 

NARRATOR: The polygrapher thought he could smell a rat. So he amped up the pressure. 

TRACY WALDER: I said: “No, no, no, no. Why do you keep asking me this question?”

NARRATOR: Keep in mind that Tracy is only 20 years old as she’s being subjected to this grilling by a seasoned CIA operative. 

TRACY WALDER: And so, as a result, your biometrics are off, right? You get frustrated. You sweat. You get mad. And so he was saying that it was coming back as inconclusive. And that I would need to come back the next day. And I think at that point I was just like: “I'm done. I'm out of here. I'm not doing this again. The CIA is not right for me.” My recruiter called me. And I told him I couldn't do this anymore. And he convinced me to do it the next day. So I went back the next day. And they hooked me back up, asked me the same question again and again and again. And I, obviously, I gave the same answer.

NARRATOR: Tracy’s nascent CIA career was in the balance. There is no way they could let her in with any doubts hanging over her integrity.

TRACY WALDER: And the gentleman stepped out. And I think at that point I was very drained, and I was waiting for him to come back, and I eventually fell asleep because I also hadn't slept the night before because I was obviously very nervous. And he came back in and he told me that I passed.

NARRATOR: What had caused the polygrapher’s change in attitude?

TRACY WALDER: I'll never know exactly what happened, but I think the way that they figured out that I passed was probably the fact that I fell asleep. Someone who was nervous and was lying probably would have been nervous for that entire time - almost an hour - that he was gone. 

NARRATOR: She was in. Tracy Walder had passed the CIA entrance test with her eyes closed, literally.

TRACY WALDER: Well, I'll leave the profanity-laced part out of it but... In my sorority house, I came down. I saw that I had a letter from the government. It just said: This is a conditional offer of employment which applies only on your graduation from college. That was the condition.

NARRATOR: Straight out of college.

TRACY WALDER: When I joined the CIA I was 21.

NARRATOR: Tracy was a CIA spy. And at an age where she was only just old enough to buy alcohol. For most people, this achievement would have resulted in pure elation. How would you feel?+

TRACY WALDER: It's a huge weight off your shoulders. They told me I was in. It was November of my senior year and I was really excited, not because: “Oh my gosh, I'm going to go work for the CIA,” but I think also… I had a job, right? A lot of folks, their senior year in college, that's, that's a big deal to have a job that early on into your senior year. We have to remember again. I had no preconceived notions of what the CIA was.

NARRATOR: And so Tracy started her life at the CIA like any graduate in their first job. 

TRACY WALDER: When I joined the CIA, it was 2000. On my first day, I was scared. I had never lived out of state before, anything like that. So that part was really scary for me. I was excited but I was also nervous. There were both feelings. No, I wasn't nervous about the work itself. It was just more new job stuff. I would say a lot of the same nerves that people would have whenever they start a new job.

But before she could start her actual work, Tracy needed to be assigned to a specific area within the CIA. 

I think a lot of people assume that with the CIA you can pick wherever you want to go there. And it definitely doesn't work like that. They basically tell you what office you're going to.

NARRATOR: Which for Tracy was a bit of a risk. She had only joined the CIA to go after terrorists like the one she’d seen in the cave on TV. And CIA spies can be anything from economic analysts to cyber-security officers.

TRACY WALDER: I got lucky. I was really excited that I was put into counterterrorism. But that was just, I guess, luck of the draw for me. 

NARRATOR: But was Tracy using up all her luck before her job had even begun?

TRACY WALDER: So, when you joined the CIA, I think there's a perception that if you're on the operation side, you go straight to what we call ‘the farm’. And that's actually not true. What you do first is what we call ‘desk work’. Just sitting in a cubicle in your office, really getting to know what they're doing there. That's actually how everyone's training begins. Some people like that. Some people don't. But that's just what it is. So for me, where I was placed, I was looking at terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, providing targeting packages to the Department of Defense. Things like that, monitoring those camps.

NARRATOR: Monitoring the training camps. For Tracy, with her fascination for terrorism, this seemed like a dream come true. 

TRACY WALDER: So that's what I was doing and I thought it was very interesting. And so I was doing some training. I can't really get into too many details, but it was very much business as usual. I had a very, I guess, normal life. I'm an early bird, so I would always get in at 6:30 am. I really enjoyed running and working out. So, for me, I would say my life was very, very stable, very predictable, very much. I went to work and I came home.

It was the calm before the storm.

I would just say the world was uniformly positive at that time.

NARRATOR: But as the summer of 2001 ended and Tracy reached the end of her first year in the agency, change was in the air. One day she was told that she was being assigned to a new program.

TRACY WALDER: Yes, that's correct. On September 10th I was told I would be working in The Vault.

NARRATOR: The Vault, a highly secretive program and operation center. At the heart of the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. So secretive, in fact, you’re going to have to use some imagination in working out actually what went on in there.

TRACY WALDER: I'm trying to figure out how to talk around it. I'll be very honest with you. The program still isn't declassified so it's difficult to talk around it.

NARRATOR: But here is what Tracy can tell you about the work of The Vault.

TRACY WALDER: The overall objective and the purpose of the work that was done in The Vault was to hopefully stop future terrorist attacks and to locate terrorists. 

NARRATOR: You’re going to hear more specific information about the kind of operations that went on in The Vault but you might have to do some spy work yourself - listen out for the morsels of information dropped by Tracy during her story and you’ll uncover a lot of what the CIA use The Vault for. But all you really need to know is that when it comes to fighting international terrorism, this is perhaps the most significant room in the world, which certainly wasn't apparent to Tracy back on September 10, 2001, when she was first told she’d been assigned there.

TRACY WALDER: I had received an email just saying that you would be working on the such-and-such program. I really didn't think too much about it. It sounded like something interesting, and something different, to apply the skills that I had picked up.

NARRATOR: Tracy is still only 22 at this point. Her pre-training at the CIA hasn’t even finished and here she is being invited into the top-secret program at the heart of the CIA’s hunt for terrorists.

TRACY WALDER: I do 100 percent think that my youth and naivety actually helped me at the agency. And I don't know if this is good or bad, but I tend not to overthink the impending dangers of things.

NARRATOR: Not that Tracy didn’t have questions about her new role.

TRACY WALDER: I think when I was read into The Vault program, I did say: “Are we going to have to kill anyone?” I believe when I asked them if I was going to have to kill anybody, they said: “Not unless there's some large terrorist attack.”

NARRATOR: At the end of September 10, 2001, Tracy finished being briefed on her coming work in The Vault program. Maybe tomorrow they would show her what was actually inside that room? But who knows what tomorrow will bring…

TRACY WALDER: So on September 11, I came to work like it was any normal day. 

NARRATOR: When you put your mind back to the really significant days in your life, what’s the first thing you remember?

TRACY WALDER: Parked my car.

NARRATOR: Is it the event itself? That cataclysmic moment. 

TRACY WALDER: Went and got my Starbucks. 

NARRATOR: Maybe it’s the chaotic chain reactions that follow, the ripples that to this day still spread out into your life. 

TRACY WALDER: Went up to my office. 

NARRATOR: Or is it just the utter mundanity of how it all started. 

TRACY WALDER: Maybe talking to some colleagues, talking to them about their day or their morning.

NARRATOR: But what happens when you let your mind spool backward? Maybe it didn’t all start on that morning after all?

TRACY WALDER: I'm looking at terrorist training camps. I probably needed to focus on that.

NARRATOR: In the weeks and months before September 11, when Tracy had been poring over maps of terrorist training camps, she’d started to notice something strange was happening. People seemed to be clearing out of the camps. But as the new girl in the office, she couldn’t be sure. Was she counting them correctly? Where were they now, if not in the camps?

TRACY WALDER: I was just doing my thing, looking at anything that had changed in the training camps overnight.

NARRATOR: So on the morning of September 11, as she sat at her desk with her coffee waiting to be taken to The Vault, her mind was back on those terrorist training camps, oblivious to what was unfolding in the world outside her office.

TRACY WALDER: At the CIA, you can't bring cell phones, outside computers, those kinds of things, inside. So unless you're actively watching a news station there, you don't necessarily know that breaking news has occurred. And so, for me, I really did not know that the first plane had hit the World Trade Center until a colleague called me and said: “Hey, you really should turn on your TV because the plane just hit the World Trade Center.” And so I did. 

NARRATOR: Initially the significance of what was unfolding passed Tracy by.

TRACY WALDER: And my first reaction to the first plane heading actually was not terrorism. About a month or two prior to that, a baseball player had accidentally flown his plane into a very large apartment building in Brooklyn, New York. That's actually what popped into my mind, it was: “Oh, no. This is that [same thing] happened again.” Because my colleague didn't tell me that a 737 hit the World Trade Center. I assumed it was a small accident. I think, once I saw the second plane hit and I saw that it was a large Boeing airplane, then I was like: “Okay, this is, this is some kind of a terrorist attack.”

NARRATOR: If you’ve ever started out in a new job, you’ll know it takes a while to get your feet under the table. To really feel like you know what you should be doing. And if you’re fresh out of college, and in your first ever real job, that feeling might take a little longer to go away. But if you’re a spy working in counterterrorism? And you haven’t even finished your pre-training training? And now your country is being attacked, and you are suddenly at the center of it all. How would you react? Well, first of all, you might look around and see how your more experienced colleagues are reacting. 

TRACY WALDER: So I think, at that point, people started gathering around other people's desks watching their TV. And then you saw a lot of times they're your managers. They have their own office. They don't work in cubicles. And I would say 99.9 percent of the time, they keep their doors open. It's a very very collegial environment, but a lot of their doors were closed. And so my best guess is they were obviously talking to the leadership above. And so, all of us were at our desks with each other huddled. What's going on? Well, we'll have to wait until so-and-so comes out of their office to tell us what we're doing.

NARRATOR: And then things got worse: it wasn’t just America under attack it was the intelligence community itself.

TRACY WALDER: So, when the plane hit the Pentagon, at that point I believe really all federal buildings were evacuated. I know ours, obviously, was, but I think all federal buildings around DC were evacuated.

NARRATOR: Imagine how you might feel at that moment. You’re the people who are supposed to protect your country from attacks like this. And now you're under attack yourself. What is going on?

TRACY WALDER: Our cell phones didn't work. Nothing was working. It was just a mess.

NARRATOR: Are there more hijacked planes headed for other intelligence headquarters? Is the attack only being carried out by hijacked planes? New guesses are being made all the time. The situation is changing rapidly. Would you be able to keep it together? Around you it’s chaos. Tracy’s colleagues filed out of the building, headed for safety. But not her. 

TRACY WALDER: Yeah, well, if you worked in the counterterrorism center you're going to be asked to stay. So we were asked to stay. 

NARRATOR: These are the moments that reveal what you’re really made of in counterintelligence, like anywhere else. And in Tracy what these unfolding events revealed was perhaps what that CIA recruiter had spotted in that sorority student dropping off her resume on a whim. Someone who when the going got tough, really tough, might stay calm. 

TRACY WALDER: I was not scared.

NARRATOR: Grounded. 

TRACY WALDER: No panic. I'm not a big panicker. 

NARRATOR: Self-assured. 

TRACY WALDER: I think to be able to function at the agency and the type of work that you're doing you have to compartmentalize things.

NARRATOR: Someone who when you most needed them, could clear their mind and focus. 

TRACY WALDER: And I don't know if that's good or bad. But I think you have to, because if you let your emotions completely overcome you, you can make a very, very bad mistake that could have worldwide consequences. So any fear, any panic, sadness, guilt, it's okay to have those feelings, but you have to put them away when you're at work.

NARRATOR: That ability to compartmentalize is essential in a spy. In a high-pressure situation like responding to the single deadliest terrorist attack in human history. You have to put those feelings somewhere else and turn your focused mind to the tragedy unfolding around you and to the individual who could be ultimately responsible.

TRACY WALDER: And that individual turned out to be known as Osama bin Laden. I believe it came into our heads right away. I don't think there was any question because he had tried to attack the World Trade Center back in 1993. Obviously, the world is different now. We've got ISIS and lots of other different groups but, at that point in time, he was the only one that was capable of, really, doing something like this.

NARRATOR: Toward the end of September 11, Tracy finally left work for the day. And the enormity of the day’s events had a chance to register. Like millions of Americans that day she did not want to be on her own.

TRACY WALDER: I ended up going to my friend's house, and she and I just hung out in numb silence, I guess, and watched the news. I think, for me, I just wanted to be with somebody too. That's why I was with my really good friend. We just kind of hung out together. I went home, I didn't really sleep, and then went to work the next day. 

NARRATOR: The next day. It’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like to enter work at any of the US intelligence agencies the day after September 11th. Not only is your whole industry a completely different place but the entire world is. Tracy and her colleagues started that day knowing that they were the ones tasked with responding to the attacks that had just happened.

TRACY WALDER: Some people were like: “Let's go f***ing kill everyone.” And then there were other people that were like: “What the hell just happened?” Do you know what I mean? So for me, I've never been one of those people like: “Let's go kill a bunch of people.” That's not really my personality, but I'm also not one of those people who walks around affected in this emotional daze either. I think for me, I walked in, I was like: “Okay, what's the job? What are we going to do?” I mean, I do the best job that I can. I think that was more my attitude. I think for me, personally, I just became more and more and more passionate about the counterterrorism mission.

NARRATOR: Externally, Tracy was focused and determined on the job at hand, with that ability to compartmentalize coming into play. But deep down?

TRACY WALDER: I think that a lot of us felt a lot of guilt, particularly if you look at the 9/11 report that blamed us for it, that we should have stopped this. We should have seen this coming. We should have put all the pieces of the puzzle together. So, I think that that happened right away. But you have to pack that away because you have to focus on the work. So, I think what made me fortunate was that I felt guilty but I was in a position where I could actually do something about it. I could do something about trying to find these people, trying to protect us from another terrorist attack. And so I think that is where I could really pour all of my efforts into.

NARRATOR: And, after September 11th there was one room where all that effort was focused?

TRACY WALDER: The next day after September 11th was my first day in The Vault. So when I first entered The Vault, just right after the wake of September 11th, I felt... heavy, I guess would be the right [expression]. I felt heavy. I think I felt a little sad, but I also think I felt somewhat energized because I felt like I could do something and make a difference. The Vault, it was actually a two-compartment room. You walked in one door, that portion, that upon your entry that you see was almost a smaller conference room. And then once you were in there, there was another door that you would walk into - the beating heart of The Vault - where all the actual work really took place. And that place was extremely, extremely small. It was maybe across 12 feet, and deep, maybe 10 feet. Just kind of a big rectangle. It only had about three or four people in it at any given time. The Vault sounded like constant humming. There really wasn't a lot of chit-chat and chatter that went on. Once in a while, you would hear the Muslim call to prayer because we would always set our clocks to that. But other than that low hum, and the occasional call to prayer, that was really the extent of what we heard.

NARRATOR: Call to prayer? Why would that be playing in this room and why would Tracy and her colleagues need to know when it was?

TRACY WALDER: I don't know that I can particularly say what I saw. I'm sorry.

NARRATOR: Well, as a hint, what I can tell you is that the US Forces were always very careful not to strike when they saw people practicing religious worship.

TRACY WALDER: For me, when I was working at the mapping, we had seen terrorists coming in and out of training camps. And I think our job was really to try to find them and to get the people that had attacked America.

NARRATOR: To get the people that had attacked America. Tracy’s work inside The Vault had begun.

TRACY WALDER: I worked very strange hours, 12 or 13-hour shifts when we first started. It was really just us and George Tenet. 

NARRATOR: George Tenet was the director of the CIA back in 2001.

TRACY WALDER: But as this particular program grew and grew and grew, we began to have more and more influential people in there, folks like Dick Cheney. 

NARRATOR: That’s the then-US vice president.

TRACY WALDER: George Bush. 

NARRATOR: That’s the then-US actual president. 

TRACY WALDER: Condoleezza Rice.

NARRATOR: The then-US national security advisor. You get the picture. The top brass. 

TRACY WALDER: They would all be in there wanting to see what we were doing, but then also wanting our opinions on things.

NARRATOR: Tracy turned 23 in October that year but her mind wasn’t on 23-year-old stuff. She was focused on the US invasion of Afghanistan and hunting down the world’s most wanted person. Working in The Vault with the president of the USA looking over her shoulder. How would you cope if your boss was constantly looking over your shoulder as you worked, let alone if you were 23 and he was the leader of the free world?

TRACY WALDER: I was definitely relaxed about that. I mean, it became almost annoying, after a while, because we got very used to being able to come to work in this environment in sweatpants. And so, if we received a heads up that Bush was coming, or Cheney, or whomever, we always had to come in super-professional attire, which meant waking up earlier. So after a while, we started to get annoyed. But no... I wouldn't say we ignored them, but we just developed an attitude, and only spoke when spoken to by them. They would ask us a lot of questions. That's mostly what happened. Or they would just stand there and see what we were doing. I think that those high-value individuals really just thought that we were playing computer games in there.

NARRATOR: Playing computer games? What exactly were the president and the intelligence chiefs there to watch Tracy do?

TRACY WALDER: I can't get into specifics about that but they weren't there to just see me.

NARRATOR: More classified details I’m afraid. But those activities become a little clearer when those ‘computer games’ reach their end of level showdown. It was early December 2001. Nearly three whole months since the September 11 attacks. The US was still striking out in their search for the person who had masterminded it all. Was he still in Afghanistan? Possibly Pakistan? Maybe somewhere else entirely? Rumor was abundant but facts were scarce. And then, one cold night... 

TRACY WALDER: We had received information or intelligence from analysts, operatives, that bin Laden was in a place called Tora Bora... 

NARRATOR: In Afghanistan's White Mountains near the Khyber Pass.

TRACY WALDER: … which is very close to the Afghan-Pakistan region. And that's great intel, to have a more precise location of him. The military had received word that we should try to get him there.

NARRATOR: A chance to capture Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11 was suddenly here.

TRACY WALDER: But no sooner had the intelligence come in, there were problems.

NARRATOR: The story had been leaked to the newspapers, who were now reporting that the US knew where bin Laden was hiding. So now bin Laden knew that the US knew where he was. The clock was suddenly ticking. How long would he stay in that location? To make matters worse, there was also a shortage of available ground troops in the Tora Bora location to go in and capture him. 

TRACY WALDER: There were a lot of issues that we were facing. We really needed ground troops down there, and we were not getting them. And so I think, for us, we were starting to get a little frustrated. There were just so many different things that needed to happen, some of which were not happening. 

Can you imagine the frustration at that situation? That man Tracy had seen on TV back in her sorority house issuing a death sentence on her country and religion, then going on to kill thousands on 9/11. Now suddenly in her crosshairs. But without the full arsenal to capture him. How would you feel? With some of the most powerful people in the world watching over your shoulder, you and your team consider the options.

TRACY WALDER: There were two schools of thought, right, of how we should get bin Laden in Tora Bora. Do we send in ground troops? Precision air force bombing? Or do we not send in ground troops at all and just carpet-bomb the whole place?

NARRATOR: And the ground troops being requested weren’t available, so… 

TRACY WALDER: I would say that later one is what won out. Let's just carpet-bomb the whole place. And that’s what had happened.

NARRATOR: Down on the ground in Afghanistan, pandemonium. The ground vibrated as explosions rained down. 

TRACY WALDER: Mostly the Air Force was doing missile drops.

NARRATOR: And in The Vault?

TRACY WALDER: Members of the team had to take 30-minute-shifts. It’s difficult to explain why that was, without divulging the program. But sometimes, when something is extremely intense, you can develop tunnel vision really quickly. So, it's better to have a fresh perspective coming in more rapidly. I would say my colleagues and I are quiet. I don't think anyone talked to anyone. I don't remember talking to anyone during that time because, if you did talk, someone somewhere high up would yell at you to shut up. But it's not because they were being mean. It's just they needed the focus. And I don't think we really wanted to talk to each other. What was there to talk about? So, I think we all were behaving the same. We all just, we would take those shifts right on and off. And then, in-between those shifts, we would maybe put our heads down. I remember some guy going underneath the conference table and there was a pillow down there.

NARRATOR: Hours and hours went by. Tracy and her colleagues were passing each other between shifts, stepping between worlds. The pressure of work in The Vault. Life and - let's face it - often death decisions being made. Then normality outside. 

TRACY WALDER: But that's part of the compartmentalization. You just don't have time to reflect on: “Holy shit, what did I just do?” at that moment. You don't have time for that because if you take time for that you might do something wrong, or forget to do something that could have broader implications. And part of the problem with compartmentalization is that it starts to take a mental toll on you a little bit. One of the things that I do think that the agency could do better - and maybe they have done better - is providing more psychologists to the people that work there because, you have to remember, I can't just go talk to someone about it, about the things I did and the things that I saw, because they're not cleared. So that presents itself as a problem.

NARRATOR: The Battle of Tora Bora went on. Hours of focused concentration and pressure.

TRACY WALDER: I know that we came very, very close. 

NARRATOR: Hours turned to days.

TRACY WALDER: But if you don't have enough ground forces on the ground to keep him from escaping... 

NARRATOR: Over a week. Still no sign of the target.

TRACY WALDER: he's just going to leak through it like water, which is exactly what happened.

NARRATOR: The creeping realization that this wasn’t going to be the success that so many had hoped for. 

TRACY WALDER: Well, I think everyone knows that we lost him at Tora Bora. We don't know for sure where he went, but in my opinion, best guesses he went to the mountainous border region in Pakistan. And I think there was this huge sense of defeat. I don't think we blamed ourselves though. I think it was more of: “We told you. You should've had ground troops.” That kind of situation. We didn't blame ourselves, but it just became, it was a little bit defeating. However, we had lots of successes throughout the time, the months that I worked, and even that night as well, so I think that's probably why we weren't too defeated. I would say once he was lost, it was: “Okay, everyone just go home. We need to rethink all this.”

NARRATOR: Soon after the Battle of Tora Bora, Tracy left behind her work at The Vault with the CIA realizing that - even for the most calm and composed of recruits - that kind of work takes its toll.

TRACY WALDER: I think they realized that doing really intense work has a lifespan, the whole idea of on-and-off shifts of 30 minutes. And so, they wanted to rotate people off of the program. And that's pretty common actually. [The] CIA does that, a lot.

NARRATOR: And so, Tracy decided in her next posting she was going to take it easy on herself.

TRACY WALDER: You can internally apply for other jobs. And there was a new group that had been set up within the counterterrorism center called The Weapons of Mass Destruction group. So I applied for it, and I worked there. 

NARRATOR: So, not easy at all. Tracy went to work in the field, down on the ground - and I’m speculating here - in some of the countries that she might have once looked down on from The Vault.

TRACY WALDER: I can't really go into that. I'm sorry. 

NARRATOR: And after that? An easier posting surely. 

TRACY WALDER: I knew I liked counterterrorism, so I thought: “Well, why don't I apply for the FBI?” So I did, and I became a special agent at the FBI. I worked Chinese counterintelligence there.

NARRATOR: But, through all of this work, there was a calling for Tracy that was stronger than counterterrorism and counterintelligence, a passion that she’d carried in her right from the start. And, after six years of intense spy work, it was a calling that eventually won her over. 

TRACY WALDER: I decided now is the time for me to finally be what I had gone to college to be, which was a history teacher. And so I became a teacher. 

NARRATOR: But for those who’ve lived their lives in the shadowy world of espionage, your past can often be hard to ever turn away from no matter how hard you might try to hide it. And one day, at school, Tracy let slip a detail about her past to one of her students which led to questions.

TRACY WALDER: Obviously they have a lot of questions.

NARRATOR: And she realized that rather than hide her past, she could use it to the benefit of these enquiring minds.

TRACY WALDER: So I thought: “Let’s create a course on national security, foreign policy, and espionage for my students.” I came to see that they really didn't have anything like that and it became, really, one of the most popular classes at my school. And, and as a result, a lot of these girls have gone into the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, CIA, State Department - all over the place. And I think they needed a woman to show them that these are careers that females can have. For me, I think teaching is a way that I feel that I'm still involved in this mission because I'm arming a new group of people to take it on and to at least care about it.

NARRATOR: Tracy is using her unique perspective as a former CIA and FBI agent to nurture the next generation of spies. 

TRACY WALDER: I think the best piece of advice that I could give a young woman wanting to go into the intelligence community are two things. I'd say the first one is: don't be afraid to go for it. Even if you don't see a lot of people that look like you within these careers, the only way they're going to change is if there are more people of your gender in them. And then, also: don't have too many expectations or preconceived notions of what you think you want. When you get into these jobs, go in with an open mind.+

NARRATOR: Tracy’s story highlights something we see again and again. Secretly, spies are just like us - ordinary people doing extraordinary things. That’s why the CIA and other agencies recruit bright young things from college campuses, and that’s why Tracy is now able to inspire her high school students to think big about where their skills might take them.

Join us next week for another assignment with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Tracy Walder was recruited by the CIA while studying at the University of Southern California. She spent the next five years as a covert operative for the CIA’s counterterrorism center, assuming aliases, thwarting terrorist attacks, and hiding in the trunks of cars on her way to debrief terrorists at black sites. She joined the FBI afterward but left to pursue her dream of teaching history. She also works as a SPYEX consultant.

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