The Current

Former CIA agent talks smuggling video out of Myanmar and working undercover in new memoir

Amaryllis Fox was just 21 when she was recruited into the CIA. She told us about her new memoir on her 10 years as an undercover counterterrorism operative.

Amaryllis Fox used her prom money to sneak into Myanmar and interview Aung Sun Suu Kyi

Amaryllis Fox was recruited by the CIA when she was 21 years old. Her new memoir is titled Life Undercover, Coming of Age in the CIA. (Brent Bolthouse)

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Amaryllis Fox was just 21 years old when, as a student at Georgetown University, she was recruited into the CIA.

She quickly rose through the ranks to work undercover, infiltrating terrorist networks in the Middle East and Asia. 

Even before that, though, she was no stranger to covert work: as a teenager she smuggled video of politician Aung San Suu Kyi, then living under house arrest, out of Myanmar.

Fox spoke to The Current's interim host Laura Lynch about her new memoir Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA. Here is part of their conversation.

In high school, you became intrigued by Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. Instead of shopping for a prom dress, you took the money to buy a ticket to Thailand and make your way to meet her. Tell me about that secret meeting.

I took this time off before college, with the money [my mom] gave me to buy a prom dress, and went over initially to work in the refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. I was aspiring to be a journalist at that time.

The democracy movement secretly arranged a meeting for me with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest at the time, and told me that I'd probably be detained as a result, and how to hide the film to get through that detention and get it out to Thailand. 

The meeting was very inspirational. Suu Kyi has come under a lot of fire since then about her failure to stand up for many of the ethnic minorities in Burma. But at the time, to my young mind, she was this tiny, petite single woman who, by telling the truth, could bring this entire military dictatorship to its knees.

And taking her words out on this film — and then being detained by that very military government, eventually being deported and getting getting those words out to Thailand, where they were broadcast by the BBC back into Burma — it was electrifying for me. It was this idea that truth can be more powerful than military force. 

And that really began to shape my aspirations in the world.

As a teenager, Fox smuggled video of Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi, then living under house arrest in Myanmar. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

You did take a real risk here. You were working with us with someone else, another Westerner, and as you say, you were getting ready to get the message out. And Aung Sun Suu Kyi told you how to do it. Tell me what she told you to do.

She did. You know, in our young and naive way, we had brought these Bic pens ... that we were going to wrap the film around the inside of, as a kind of crude concealment device. 

And we started taking the tape apart after the interview there with her. And she stopped me and she said, "those are fine for the film that you want them to find, the decoy film so that they think they've found it all. But for the real film you want to get out, you have a better hiding place." 

And ... she took the film and wrapped it up smaller than a tampon and gave it to me, and told me the bathroom was down the hall. 

This April 13, 2016 file photo shows the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

You end up studying terrorism at Georgetown University and you just talked about your thesis. Tell us a little bit more about it and why it became so important to the CIA.

I had done my undergrad at Oxford and I'd been approached by British intelligence while I was there and just not found it interesting at all. But [the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks] happened right before my last year at Oxford, and that was when I began trying to understand these forces in a more academic and rigorous way. And that did become my thesis at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown.

And it turns out, unbeknownst to me, that Georgetown has a CIA officer in residence. And that guy asked me to tell him a little bit about this algorithm. [I was studying to try to predict terrorism activity.] 

I said ... "What I'm really interested in is actually going overseas and sitting across from someone who is committed to this abhorrent ideology and having them look me in the eye and tell me why they're going to get up tomorrow morning and commit one of these attacks." And he said, "So are we."

Amaryllis Fox's memoir explores her 10 years undercover in the CIA. (Submitted by Penguin Random House )

So you join the CIA and you really quickly rise through the ranks to get assigned to the counterterrorism centre. ...

As I understand it, your undercover profile was that you were an art dealer dealing in Indigenous arts and you moved to different places, including China, to maintain that cover.

The work that I did operationally was actually all in the Middle East.

But being overseas in Asia allowed me to to have a little bit more space, a little bit more distance from the American government, the American identification that might make it more difficult to build relationships with the people that we needed to in order to prevent these attacks.

Your work took place against the backdrop of the global war on terrorism. And we know in the years since some of the things that the United States did in the name of fighting that war, such as extraordinary rendition, such as torture.

How comfortable are you with that aspect of the global war on terrorism, that you were a part of?

Not at all comfortable. And in many ways, one of the strange things about siloing, about the compartmentalization that happens for security reasons, is that many of us learned about those things through the press in the same way as everybody else.

I had the fortune, I guess, in my career, to never be exposed to any of that directly.

But one thing that I find really heartening is the degree to which the country, the policymakers and the intelligence and military community have really reviewed those mistakes and, I think, have come to the conclusion that they were not tactics that were A, useful and B, more importantly, acceptable for a country that ... aspires to be a moral leader in the world.


Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Ines Colabrese.

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