The latest James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” has — pardon the word play — stirred up a discussion about the role of women. Emmy Award-winner Phoebe Waller-Bridge of “Fleabag” and “Killing Eve” fame was recruited to polish the dialogue and add her signature wit to the film. And this time, the “Bond girl” has been replaced by a “Bond woman,” an elite 00-agent poised to take an even bigger job. Daniel Craig, playing Bond for the last time, suggested that the role has limits: “Why should a woman play James Bond when there should be a part just as good as James Bond, but for a woman?”
As a former CIA intelligence officer (and author, with my husband, Ryan Hillsberg, also former CIA, of “License to Parent: How My Career as a Spy Helped Me Raise Resourceful, Self-Sufficient Kids”), I know how much women can do in the field (and everywhere else) — and I think we are ready for a female James Bond, or perhaps even a new 00-agent blazing her own trail altogether. As Waller-Bridge said: “I think Bond is James Bond. We just need to cook up someone to rival him.” Seven recently published books by women who worked in intelligence show us what it looks like when women take the lead in the world of espionage.
‘Red Widow,’ by Alma Katsu
Not one, but two female CIA agents are at the center of Katsu’s fast-paced “Red Widow.” Lyndsey Duncan, formerly a top handler in the Moscow Field Station, is sent home to Washington on administrative leave and later begins tracing the steps of those closest to her in search of a possible mole. Her path becomes intertwined with that of Theresa Warner, the “Red Widow,” the wife of a former director killed in the field under shady circumstances. Katsu, author of “The Deep,” “The Hunger” and the Taker Trilogy, uses her 30-plus years of intelligence to create a suspenseful, entertaining spy tale laced with authenticity.
‘You Can Run,’ by Karen Cleveland
When CIA analyst Jill Bailey receives a call from someone claiming to have her son, her world is turned upside down. She forms an unlikely (and uneasy) alliance with an investigative journalist in an effort to find the truth. Cleveland relies on her years as a CIA counterterrorism analyst and her experience as a mother in this heart-rending thriller.
‘True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News,’ by Cindy L. Otis
Though billed for young adults, this is a book that every adult should read. Based on her decades of work as a CIA analyst, Otis offers a guide on how to verify sources, think critically, consider context and understand our own information biases — skills that feel more important now than ever.
‘The Targeter: My Life in the CIA, Hunting Terrorists and Challenging the White House,’ by Nada Bakos with Davin Coburn
In her gripping memoir, Bakos gives readers an inside look at life in the CIA as an intelligence analyst and later, a targeting officer focused on top targets inside al-Qaeda. The book is filled with many juicy nuggets, so many that Bakos filed a lawsuit against the CIA in 2018 to get her book released. Readers are rewarded by her win. “The Targeter” is an enthralling account that has drawn comparisons to “Zero Dark Thirty.”
‘In the Dark of War: A CIA Officer’s Inside Account of the U.S. Evacuation from Libya,’ by Sarah M. Carlson
Carlson, who served as a counterterrorism analyst with the U.S. government for more than a decade, including work with the CIA, shares her inside account of Libya’s descent into violence following the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, and the evacuation of the U.S. Mission from Tripoli in 2014. Like Bakos, Carlson engaged in a legal battle with the CIA to find language to tell her story while also protecting national security. The result is a brave account of war from a woman’s point of view.
‘Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA,’ by Amaryllis Fox
Fox tells the riveting story of her training and deployment as a CIA operations officer under unofficial cover, charged with infiltrating terrorist networks in the most remote areas of North Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Fox shares the trajectory of her career: studying theology and law at the University of Oxford, recruitment by the CIA at 21, training at the CIA’s covert operational training facility and her cover job as a dealer of Indigenous art. Woven throughout, Fox shares intimate details of her personal life and, ultimately, how she decided to leave the agency.
‘The Unexpected Spy: From the CIA to the FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World’s Most Notorious Terrorists,’ by Tracy Walder with Jessica Anya Blau
Walder was a sorority member at the University of Southern California when she decided, on a whim at a career fair, to apply to the CIA. Needless to say, it was a big life change. In her enthralling memoir, Walder gives a candid account of her role in the search for weapons of mass destruction and high-ranking al-Qaeda members. Later, Walder joined the FBI, where she worked in counterintelligence and helped capture a notorious foreign spy.
Christina Hillsberg, a former CIA intelligence analyst, is a writer and mother of five.
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