The Profile Dossier: Amaryllis Fox, the ex-CIA agent performing the most clandestine operations
"The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them."
At 21 years old, Amaryllis Fox was recruited into the CIA.
By 22, she was one of the youngest female officers assigned to “non-official cover,” which means she conducted operations abroad but had no diplomatic protections as part of the most top-secret unit at the Agency.
Fox was assigned to operations around counter-terrorism, which means she was sent to infiltrate terrorist networks in remote areas of the Middle East and Asia. When she was invited to join the CIA’s “Clandestine Service” unit, she says it’s “the scariest invitation I’ve ever been given and the one invitation I’ve most wanted to receive.”
In her memoir, Life Undercover, Fox writes, “I got into this business to understand the people who attacked us, so I could make them stop. With this single letter, I might finally have the chance to meet them face-to-face.”
The work was emotionally grueling. When she is assigned to cover Iraq, her first task is to watch the same beheading video a hundred times in a row, focusing on a different grid square of the image each time to note any over-looked clue it might give to the location of the crime.
Although Fox was trained how to use a Glock, how to get out of flexi-cuffs while locked in the trunk of a car, and how to withstand torture, the bulk of her work was focused on the most simple skill of all: Listening with intent.
Her work required her to meet with dangerous arms dealers and people who wanted to see Americans dead, but she had to put all of that aside for a period of time. She learned that in order to extract information from her counterpart, she first had to humanize him — not as an arms dealer, but as a fellow parent, for example.
"The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them," she says. "If you hear them out, if you're brave enough to really listen to their story, you can see that more often than not you might've made some of the same choices if you'd lived their life instead of yours.”
I was surprised to find out that there’s a lot we can learn from the work of a CIA agent. After reading this dossier, you’ll walk away with practical tools around empathy, conflict resolution, and authenticity.
On coming of age in the CIA: I recently finished Fox's memoir, and it is a bombshell of a story. In it, she details her 10 years in the most elite clandestine ops unit of the CIA, hunting the world's most dangerous terrorists in 16 countries, while marrying her then-husband, and giving birth to a daughter. There’s a lot going on, and although I wished she would linger more on certain points, it’s straightforward and captivating.
On creating normalcy: In her time with the CIA, there was constant tension between Fox’s personal life and her professional calling. She had strapped her first daughter to her chest ahead of clandestine meetings (tucking concealment devices into diapers) and has gone deep into Zika country while pregnant to shoot a documentary. Here’s how she struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy while in the CIA.
On old habits: When she’s in a restaurant, Fox still prefers to sit with her back to the wall so she has a good view of the entrances and exits. But one of the more odd habits that she does to this day is that she stops at every yellow light. Why? "When you do counter-surveillance training, one of the things that you are taught is not to piss off your surveillant and make them think you are trying to lose them," Fox said. "So, if the light turns [yellow], you stop so that they don't get the sense you shot through it with an attempt to lose them.”
On the power of relationships: What sets apart the CIA from the military? Fox says it’s all about relationship-building. Fox uses an interesting metaphor to explain how powerful in-person interactions can be in a world reliant on technology. When you follow a friend on social media, for example, you can see the “facts” about their life – new engagement or new baby. But when you talk to them in real life, you know how they feel about those facts — maybe they’re afraid to get married or maybe you learn that they’re planning to have a baby months before they make the announcement. “The ability to understand someone’s fears, dreams, hopes, and aspirations allows you to predict geopolotics in a way that technical datapoints just can’t,” she says. “It’s the ‘why’ instead of ‘the what.’”
On following your instinct: What does it mean to “follow your gut” or “trust your inctincts?” In this TED Talk, Fox explains her theory on the origins of that inner feeling. “When your instinct tells you to do something unreasonable, have faith that somewhere deep in your history, there are patterns that make you uniquely qualified to take the leap,” she says.
On searching for the higher truth: Perspective is slippery. What you see may not necessarily be the truth. Fox learned this lesson as a child when her dad held up a small block and asked Fox what shape she saw. She said it was a triangle. He then asked her brother who was sitting on the other side of the table, and he said it was a square. Her dad lifted the block, and it was in the shape of a pyramid. He used the opportunity to teach her a valuable lesson: “You were both so sure of what you saw that slowly, you would’ve begun to believe that the other person was either very stupid and ill-informed or malicious and lying because you’re so sure of what you saw unless you have the discipline to always search for the higher dimension: for the pyramid.”
On humanizing strangers: Fox grew up traveling all over the world, and she’s done the same for her daughter. Fox believes travel shows you that people and places aren’t “scary.” In this episode, she says, “The world is a lot scarier a place when people can tell you about monsters that you haven’t experienced yourself. And when you’re exposed to what are supposed to be the foreign places and supposed to be the scary people and you find out that actually both are very familiar, the world is a lot more manageable a place.”
Good and evil depend on your perspective: If there’s one lesson Fox has learned in her years at the CIA, it’s this: “Everybody believes they’re the good guy.” She explains that people in Muslim countries believe that the United States hates Islam while some Americans believe that outsiders hate our freedom. It’s a story of good versus evil, but it just depends on your perspective. The truth of the matter is that most of the soldiers on either side fight to protect their country’s honor and they believe they can achieve a better future for their families. The only real way to disarm your enemy, she says, is to listen to them. “If you’re brave enough to really listen to their story, you can see that, more often than not, you might’ve made some of the same choices if you’d lived their life instead of yours,” she says.
Dignity loosens the knot of conflict: In her memoir, Fox tells the story of a time when she visited detainees who were part of a network that sold materials to make nuclear weapons. One broker told her, “Humiliation is a powerful thing. Nuclear weapons are just a stand-in for respect. Everyone wants respect, wouldn’t you say? Even the people you call terrorists.” Fox says it’s the same with our everyday interactions. She refers to our disagreements as “conflict knots” that can be untangled through meaningful conversations filled with dignity for the other party. “It’s our responsibility to try to be alert to some tiny sliver of common ground,” she says. “The hard work is trying to find out what that is so that you can have an exchange that establishes enough respect and dialogue that when you return to the very serious issues you disagree on, the knot is a little bit looser, and you can begin to untangle it.”
Be deliberate with the words you use: As Fox travels around the world, she’s always interested in people’s various faith-based journeys. She’ll talk to someone about the power of prayer and then she’ll meet someone who talks about the power of manifestation. “They both say pretty much the exact same thing, which is, ‘I know it seems weird, but when I get really quiet and I feel grateful for what I have, and then I put a need out into the universe, then that need gets met.” But the prayer group often thinks of the manifesting people as woke hippies, while the manifesting group think of the prayer people as traditional conservatives. “These two communities miss the opportunity to connect on something extraordinary,” Fox says. Remember, language can divide or connect — it’s all about how you use it.
Remember to take off the mask: All of us have two selves: 1) The one we present to the world (typically via social media) and 2) the real one. Fox’s job required her to embody a false identity for nearly a decade, so she thought once she left the CIA, she would finally be able to be authentically herself. “Yet I found myself in the America of the social-media age where every person had seemingly as many different identities as a CIA operative might for operational reasons,” she says. “Every person you follow on Instagram is offering a curated version of their life for public consumption, which when you think about it isn’t that different from what intelligence officers do.” It wasn’t until she had a child that Fox was able to feel like her real self. “I learn that [my daughter] Zoë sees me when I forget myself, that I’m real only when I’m not aware of being anything at all, which simultaneously makes sense and no sense whatsoever.”
Recognize each other’s humanity: Fox was proficient at her job because she was able to humanize people that we typically demonize. In a time of extreme divisiveness, we often don’t give each other a fair chance. When we've labeled someone in our heads as a certain type of person, we have a hard time hearing them out. “We tend to think of our adversaries as these single-purpose people,” she says. “That they’re only an Iraqi insurgent. Or they are only a member of a group we’re fighting.” She adds: Recognize that this is just one hat they wear. Another hat they wear may be that they’re a parent, or a photographer, or someone who’s frustrated with the corruption in their government or someone who loves American football. “When we’re able to connect based on the hats that we share, it gives us some common foundation of respect and humanity, so that when we return to our differences, we can have a much more constructive conversation,” she says.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“The idea that our highest duty is not to follow the law but to do whatever we know to be right fills me with calm and hope and awe.”
“There’s a real magic when you recognize yourself in someone else.”