For years, she lived in the shadows. To her family and friends, she was an art consultant with global contacts; in reality, she was a CIA agent running covert missions combating terrorism. So is Amaryllis Fox the real-life version of TV's famous undercover operative, Homeland's Carrie Mathison? Ben Hoyle finds out.
It is late spring in 2008 and a young American couple have just arrived on a beautiful Thai island for a final holiday before their baby is born.
But as the sun sets over the airport's thatched buildings, Amaryllis Fox makes her excuses to her husband, Dean, and heads off alone to catch a cab. She gets out at a dress shop, then takes a tuk-tuk to a shopping mall, then a shared taxi to the beach, where a hotel suite is booked for a secret rendezvous with a tattooed Hungarian arms dealer who smells of aftershave and sweat.
Fox, five months pregnant, does not realise yet that this meeting will set her on a path that leads into the back alleys of Karachi and a nerve-shredding confrontation with a trio of jihadists to thwart an attempted bomb attack. Nor can she guess that, one day, far in the future, it will anchor a gripping and poignant memoir that will be lined up for a screen adaptation starring one of Hollywood's biggest names before it is even published.
She does know one thing though, as she spreads art books across the hotel suite table and waits for Jakab, who sells nuclear weapon precursors to terror groups: hundreds, possibly thousands, of lives hinge on what happens next.
Fox's family and closest friends think that she is an art consultant specialising in China and other emerging markets from her base in Shanghai. A few people, including Jakab, believe that she is an international arms broker using visits to galleries and artists' studios as a front.
Actually, she is a spy.
Her husband knows little about her efforts to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of extremists. Fox can't ask much about his work either, because Dean is also CIA and has secrets of his own.
Their marriage creaks under the strain of this enforced evasiveness. Perhaps a few days on a tropical island will give them a chance to reconnect like a normal couple before they become parents.
She just has to get her delicate recruitment pitch to Jakab out of the way first.
Eleven years later, Fox, 38, is sitting opposite me in her home, a converted barn in Los Angeles that was once a Twenties speakeasy. Her hair hangs loose over a blue playsuit and her tanned legs are folded beneath her. There's a small tattoo on her arm that reads "E pluribus unum", the de facto motto of the United States (it means "From many, one"). Zoe, the baby who was born in China and accompanied her mother on CIA missions while still an infant, is at school. A second child, born earlier this year, is in a buggy down the hallway. Fox's husband (not Dean, but Senator Robert F Kennedy's grandson, more of whom later) is asleep upstairs. Her memoir, Life Undercover, is due out later this month – provided that rumours of government legal action don't derail it – and work is already well under way on the television adaptation starring Brie Larson, which Apple sees as a key part of its efforts to muscle into the streaming war with Netflix, Disney and Amazon.
Fox won't say if the "really powerful" show is a straight adaptation of Life Undercover or a fictionalisation of her story, but she does expect it to be "suspenseful and fantastic television, while also being completely authentic and immersive in a way that I've never seen before".
Although a few screen depictions of the espionage world have impressed her over the years, including Syriana and Spy Game, she hasn't seen either Homeland or The Americans, the two series that sound like the closest approximations to her experiences. Why not? She grins. "I feel like I'd be really annoying. Like a doctor watching ER where you're, like, 'Well, that's absurd,' and then everyone in the room throws pizza at you because it's just entertainment."
It has been a long journey from 2008 and that Thai island to this rented house in sleepy Laurel Canyon, a neighbourhood described by The New York Times as "the Valhalla of Los Angeles rock" because of its legendary hippy-era music scene.
Fox, who laughs a lot and drives a "fifth-hand Prius" despite her soaring career prospects (and a billionaire stepfather, the businessman and film producer Steven Rales), apologises for the state of the place. "The house, unfortunately, is mainly a seven-month-old's territory," she says with a big smile. She seems to be relishing a second go at the early days of motherhood. The emotions are presumably less complicated when you're not worried about a life-threatening covert assignment cropping up at any moment.
Years of meditation have helped her to unwind. So while television appearances have drawn the unwanted attention of some sinister "stalkery-type people", she and her husband, Bobby, whom she met at the Burning Man festival in 2015, leave the gate to their home open. "I think that to a certain extent our sense of safety, and maybe even our actual safety, is a self-fulfilling prophecy," she says.
"And if you feel constantly under threat, it's possible to actually find yourself under threat. And so I tend to lean into trusting people." She struggled for years to talk about her former life. After leaving government service in 2011, she did tell her mother and stepfather what she had been doing, taking them out on a small sailing boat as a way to ensure that she got to the end of the conversation. She explained that "what I was about to tell them was going to involve some adjustments of understanding around what I've been doing and where I've been. But that if they thought about it, they would see that it's the me that they know that was doing it." They understood and she had little desire to discuss it with anyone else.
Her first attempt to reinvent herself was as a tech entrepreneur, becoming CEO of Mulu, a recommendations website with social justice aims that flickered briefly around 2012. She shrugs at its mention. "It was like a decompression. Definitely not the path for me."
The turning point came when she decided to reclaim her past. In 2016 she recorded a short, compelling monologue for Al Jazeera stating the case, as a former CIA officer, for seeing a conflict through the eyes of your enemy. "An al-Qaeda fighter made a point once during a debriefing," Fox says in the film. "He said, 'All these movies that America makes like Independence Day and Hunger Games and Star Wars? They're all about a small, scrappy band of rebels who will do anything in their power with the limited resources available to them, to expel an outside, technologically advanced invader. And what you don't realise,' he said, 'is that to us – to the rest of the world – you are the Empire and we are Luke and Han. You are the aliens and we are Will Smith.' " The monologue went viral, viewed more than 100 million times.
From there she built a profile as a documentary-maker, lecturer and pundit. She also began to marshal the facts of her life for a book to share more of what she had learnt.
When she started in the CIA soon after 9/11, she wanted to "wipe the adversary off the map", not least because she had admired and briefly corresponded with Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped in Karachi and murdered by jihadists in 2002.
Gradually, though, she realised that this approach does not work. Kill your enemy and "it turns out they have friends and family, that they've now multiplied". Because she never deployed with a firearm (though she did sometimes carry a razor blade for emergencies), relationship-building became her most effective weapon. "When you bring a gun somewhere the chances of you ending up in a fight are a lot higher than when you walk in without one." It's "pretty pragmatic" to believe that you can find common ground even when dealing with terror cells, she says. That's unless you're confronting a psychopath, and she wasn't likely to come across one of them. Terror groups are "so trust-based and require so much emotional checking out of one another that psychopaths don't tend to do very well in them".
The hostility oozing through today's America motivated her to speak up. If she could learn to work "with people who were trying to kill me", then perhaps US readers of all political persuasions could find a way to coexist better with their neighbours. "I genuinely believe that finding common ground is the biggest act of patriotism any of us can perform right now."
Not everybody believes that writing a book about your time in the CIA counts as patriotism. Recently there were reports that Fox had yet to receive approval for publication from the agency's Publications Review Board and faced potential legal action if she pressed ahead. She insists that she has met the obligations of her agreements with the agency and stuck to guidance on which operational details needed to be altered or omitted to avoid endangering assets. There is, she says with eyes wide, "a lot that isn't in the book".
This morning, she was out early recording narration for a forthcoming Netflix series on the war on drugs "and why the economics of it will never work". She presents and did a lot of the writing and production. Locations included Columbia, Kenya and Burma. "We like to cast drug dealers, drug mules, drug couriers, as pure evil," she says, but aside from the kingpins, with most people involved, "the growers and couriers, the dealers and users, you are looking at pretty predictable responses to economic options. And that's great, because it means that you can actually shift some of those economic options." Except that billions are still being sunk into fighting the drug lords rather than addressing the longer-term economic picture.
She is reminded of Afghanistan where the US has favoured military spending over infrastructure and the soft-power opportunity that China grasps so often via its Belt and Road Initiative, which invests in highways, railways, education, industry, agriculture and technology on four continents, has therefore been missed.
Funding some sort of nonviolent volunteer national service programme on a huge scale for Americans to build and develop things abroad would be one way to counter this, she suggests. "An American flag on a school or an American flag on a piece of shrapnel are two very different things."
This is how conversations with Fox go: you think you're shooting the breeze about her morning and suddenly she's speaking in perfectly formed paragraphs built from robust data and unexpected, carefully sequenced arguments.
That comes from her father, a former economics professor from upstate New York "who gave me my analytical mind", she says. Her mother, an Englishwoman whose first ever kiss was in a school play with Daniel Day-Lewis at Bedales, "gave me my soul".
"And the way that those two things have interacted, with one or the other taking priority at different times of my life, has kind of carved my path."
When Jakab arrives at the hotel suite in 2008 beers are opened, he smokes, and their small talk drifts towards the economic suffering of the Hungarian people. Any inkling that he may have as to why he is there is left unspoken.
Eventually Fox, who has ensured that no bed is in sight to avoid any misunderstandings, makes her approach. "Those special channels I mentioned having to Washington, the friends I talk to there," she says. "What if we could work together to take care of your people? To take care of you?" The words hang in the air. The arms dealer laughs and says, "You have confused me with Batman." But Fox presses on, edges her seat closer to him and holds his gaze. She appeals to his conscience, to his pride and to his pocket. Together they can stop atrocities. He will get to tell his grandchildren he saved the world for them. He will also go on the CIA payroll, starting at $1,000 a month. He will be able to reach her by using a Starbucks gift card to signal that he needs a meeting (she'll check the account balance every day online and if he's bought a coffee she'll know that it's time). "Don't get me killed," he says.
Fox takes out a formal contract (because the CIA believes that a deal on paper is more psychologically binding than a verbal agreement) and Jakab gives her a spontaneous bear hug. "Then," she writes, "he signs up to stop a nuclear winter with the blue ink of a cheap hotel pen." When he is gone, she burns the contract in the bathroom toilet bowl and flushes the ash away. She ducks out of the back of the hotel and strolls along the beach to the backpacker place where she and Dean are staying. "For a few minutes," she writes, "it all seems possible. Preventing nuclear war. Making my marriage real. Going all in. Then I get to our empty hotel room to find a hastily scrawled note: 'Had to go work. See you at home.' "
Fox remembers a "tremendously happy childhood". Because the family moved around a lot due to her father's work with foreign governments, she gained survival skills that would prove essential later: how to make friends quickly; how to be selective about what parts of her personality to reveal in each new place. She learnt that she could forge connections despite differences in habits or appearance. And she developed an early appetite for risk. In London, where they lived while her father was advising the Thatcher cabinet, she would climb out of her bedroom window at night and sit on the roof, looking at Big Ben.
When she was eight, one of her best friends was killed in the Lockerbie plane bombing. To tame the horror that engulfed her, Fox's father taught her to read this newspaper. "You have to understand the forces that took her," he explained as he showed her how to navigate the pages of The Times. "It will seem less scary if you do." She became a voracious follower of current affairs, and a believer in gathering information to form your own conclusions.
Her teenage years were complicated by her parents' divorce but both had "extremely high expectations of me academically", she says. She turned down a prestigious spot at the United States Naval Academy to study aerospace engineering for a place at Oxford University.
First, though, she deferred for a year and went to Thailand to work in a camp near the Burmese border for refugees fleeing the military government in Rangoon. She met Min Zin, a dissident writer who took her, blindfolded on the back of his motorbike, to the secret treehouse in the jungle where he and others who had escaped the murderous junta printed Burma's opposition newspaper. Their friendship became romantic and before long Fox found herself inside Burma, posing as half of a honeymooning couple with a British banker and amateur film-maker, in order to capture footage of planned mass protests. The demonstrations were snuffed out before they happened, but Fox did manage to slip her minders to interview Aung San Suu Kyi, then a prisoner of the regime, and smuggle the film out to the BBC. Immediately before leaving the country, she and her British travelling companion were detained. She spent 24 hours in solitary confinement, wondering what the guards would do to her, before they let her go.
At Oxford, where she studied theology and law, she fell for Anthony, a South African who was "an outsider like me" and then, in her second year, a don and two former students apparently working for British intelligence approached her over a drink in a pub. She turned them down. "I don't believe in your cloak-and-dagger stuff," she said. "Thanks for the pint."
The September 11 attacks in 2001, before her final year at Oxford, changed her mindset. She did a master's in conflict and terrorism at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. Once there she devised an algorithm to forecast how likely a given area or country would be used as a terrorist safe haven against its will.
This time, when the recruiters came for her, she said yes.
Her family thought that she was consulting for a multinational company while finishing her master's, when in fact she was at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, writing intelligence briefings based on classified cables for Congress and, sometimes, the president.
After she finished at Georgetown, her boss handed her a letter. She was wanted by the Clandestine Service, the elite operatives: the people who engage the enemy in the field. It was, she says, "the scariest invitation I've ever been given and the one invitation I've most wanted to receive". Her induction began on the Iraq desk. Her first assignment was to watch the same beheading video 100 times looking for clues to the location of the crime.
In the midst of this, Anthony moved to the United States to shore up their fading long-distance relationship. Because he was a foreign national the only way she could secure CIA clearance to live with him was by getting married. He was put through a lie detector test before being told whom she worked for.
But six months living on a secret base without communication with her new husband, her friends or her family killed off their union. "Getting married for administrative reasons turns out not to be the best idea," Fox recalls.
She describes "the Farm", as everyone called it, as a Truman Show world: a fictionalised country complete with fake diplomats, fake urban combat scenarios and its own fake rolling news channel. Recruits were subjected to what the CIA boasts is the toughest espionage training programme anywhere, a ruthlessly selective programme with trainees eliminated at every step. On her last day, she met a fellow survivor: Dean Fox.
They were apart for a while. Dean was sent to Afghanistan for a militarised assignment. She got a "nonofficial cover" role, meaning that she would be sent into the field alone posing as a regular civilian – in her case, an art consultant – without the protection of diplomatic immunity. Her family found it easier to reconcile their Amaryllis with an art-world job. "I'm relieved when they buy it," Fox writes. "If they do, maybe al-Qaeda will too."
The agency picked China, where the emerging art market was erupting, to allay suspicion that she had anything to do with the US government. The posting was for six years. The only way for her and Dean to stay together was for him to come too, which meant another hurried wedding.
In Shanghai, Fox played the public role of a rather lazy art consultant. She or her husband would then be called away to other countries. They could not tell each other why, even if there was a real risk that they would not make it back. With her CIA assets she limited the number of lies she told them and reached for genuine connections instead. With her family and friends she tried to be truthful about everything that was not off limits. "Most of your communication with the people you love is the 'everything else': you're talking about this book or that show or their boyfriend."
The problem was, "That compartmentalising gets exhausting. There's a way to fight to be authentically yourself within each compartment, and that's what I did. But after a while, you want to elbow down the compartment barriers and just be yourself all the time."
She recalls an evening of arguments with Dean and retreating to the bathroom to cry. Three months later, a debriefer in Langley asks her what had upset her and shows her a surveillance photo, intercepted from Chinese intelligence, taken through the bathroom mirror. Beijing doesn't know that they are spies. But it is watching anyway.
Zoe is born in September 2008 and her arrival resets the risk calculus that Fox has lived by for so long. A few months later she is alerted via Jakab to a possible attack in Karachi. She knows that she has to go in person, and that it is too dangerous to take her baby with her. Her account of how the mission plays out stretches credulity but should make for magnificent TV. At the time though, Fox was thinking about Zoe. "In many ways Karachi was the scariest [experience] for me, because the stakes were very high. It was my first time realising that I felt morally obliged to make this choice [to go to Pakistan], but that the potential cost was immense and real, and it would be real for people other than me."
Eventually Dean's trajectory in the agency brings the family back to Washington DC. When he deploys again, his wife and daughter stay behind.
Fox retains enormous respect for the CIA's capacity to defuse the theatre of politics and extremism. She doesn't miss the life though. There are few obvious relics of her adventures in the house in Laurel Canyon. Somewhere, perhaps, are the CIA whisky glasses a former mentor gave Fox once as a wedding gift, but for the most part you leave the shadow world only with memories. "When you're out, you're out, baby. It's a lonely, hard job and you can give it your all while you're there with the knowledge that when you leave, it'll be safe-guarded and in someone else's hands."
Fox met Bobby four years ago; they married in 2018. His full name is Robert F Kennedy III, and he is an actor, writer and director who happens to belong to America's most gilded and tragic political dynasty. His grandfather was Senator Robert F Kennedy, whose assassination during the 1968 presidential campaign devastated a generation of idealistic Americans, coming five years after his brother, President Kennedy, was killed in Dallas. That Bobby Kennedy's portrait, on a cross-section of varnished tree trunk, has been gazing at me from a wall behind Fox's shoulder all this time.
The baby daughter in the buggy is also called Bobby. "She's named for her father, grandfather and great-grandfather, carrying their legacy into a future where women stand shoulder to shoulder with their fathers, brothers and sons to do the work of love in the world," as Fox put it in an Instagram post.
Fox still tends to sit with her back to the wall in public and she often registers involuntarily that a location would make a good signalling spot, but the years of living on her nerves are behind her. So, is she afraid of anything?
"Oh, you're just going to throw that one in at the end?" She thinks for a moment. "I guess I'm afraid of failing at my responsibility to the people I love and not leaving the world a little better than I found it. In that order now. Whereas maybe in the other order before."
BOOK EXTRACT: How I survived the CIA's secret boot camp for spies
On a clear, cold winter day, my husband Anthony drives me to a gas station on Route 123 a little before dawn. I kiss him, then leave him standing there, raw and stoic, in the empty gas station forecourt, his hands thrust into his peacoat pockets, as he watches me climb into the warm camaraderie of a crowded beige van.
Jokes masking our nerves, we drive through the familiar gates at Langley, pile out of the van and into the blacked-out bus that will deliver us to the Farm – a simulated Truman Show set in a fictionalised country called the Republic of Vertania, where we are to undergo the most demanding espionage training on earth. We are to play the roles of first-tour case officers assigned to the US embassy in the ROV city of Wilton. We each have training names – aliases to protect our identities from one another. But other than that, everything feels real. There is an actual embassy building, with an American flag fluttering out front, on an actual town square with a wooden gazebo. There's a cable news channel, like CNN, that reports the news of this fictional universe: Prime Minister Carlin did this or the Sons of Artemis blew up that. There are diplomats visiting from neighbouring countries, including a North Korea-style rogue state called the Democratic People's Republic of Vertania (DPRV).
Every citizen of the ROV, every newscaster, every bombastic DPRV diplomat, every person in this giant game of make-believe, is played by a CIA operative, assigned to the Farm for a tour as an instructor. And every one of them has a thousand stories – like that time a highly sensitive source brought a six-piece mariachi band to a covert meeting in a back alley at midnight. They have tips, too, about things not covered in the training curriculum, like carrying antacid tablets to make signal marks on brick because they are less incriminating than chalk, in case of capture and search.
They break character to share these gems with us for only a few hours each night in the sanctity of our SCIFs, the small room-sized areas where five of us work on our cables and intelligence reports under the watchful eye of our advisers. The rest of the time, they stay in character, talking about the impact of the upcoming fake elections on the value of the country's fake currency, speculating about weapons proliferation across the fake border with the DPRV, and worrying about threats from fake terror groups such as the ever more violent Sons of Artemis.
We go to embassy parties, bump into our targets, recruit our assets. We drive off the base in cars with concealment compartments for our notes, and dread searches at the roadside, our knees in the gravel and our graduation dependent on not having anything incriminating lying about in the cup holders.
The crises ramp up quickly. Soon our every night's sleep is interrupted by urgent walk-ins reporting imminent threats and simulated terror attacks. We're under constant surveillance, pitted against one another, tested well beyond our limits. Sleazy instructors grope the female students in the name of preparing them for harassment in the field. Ageing instructors shout at any student who uses the internet or, God forbid, a mobile phone. Division chiefs from Langley go undercover as instructors to identify the best talent, then secretly undermine their own picks so other chiefs won't notice them.
A multilayered game takes hold. On one level, we recruit the fictional characters played by instructors in the world of the ROV. On a second, we recruit the real-life instructors who will decide who graduates. All the while, we continue to play on a third, long-distance level, recruiting chiefs back at HQ to ensure the best real-world assignment if we do make it. All without ever breaking character.
Every so often, we are given a free weekend. I don't tell Anthony that. I can't face him. The realness of him. The questions he'll ask and the shedding of so many fictional identities that I'll have to endure to answer them. Instead, I meet up with classmates at random clusters of Holiday Inns. We see movies in cineplexes. We eat pancakes. And sometimes, most times, we have sex.
Our training expands exponentially as the weeks pass. One exercise each Monday in January becomes four or five a day by June. We add land navigation, trekking for days across woods and cliffs armed with nothing more than a map in a Ziploc bag, a compass and a rainproof notebook. We learn defensive driving and how to respond in seconds when swarmed by armed militia fighters. They leave fake roadside bombs around campus; we indicate we've found one by pulling over and popping our trunk. Fail to do so and they assume we would have been toast, which means that as far as the Farm is concerned, we are.
Toward the end of the course, we begin to mix in weapons qualifications. Glock and M4. Training in urban-combat scenarios, the faux city blocks stocked with dummies – some legitimate targets, most dressed as local men, women or children. Hit a civilian and we're out. Even the actual targets have to be given first aid as soon as we complete our objective. We learn to use tourniquets to stem bleeding and to cover sucking chest wounds with supermarket bags, duct-taped to a patient's skin as their pierced lung heaves beneath.
"Excellent work," an instructor tells me at the end of a checkpoint ambush exercise. I look down at my target dummy. His tunic is soaked with blood and ripped open from throat to navel. Across his chest is a plastic bag, with the word "Wal-Mart" taped over his heart.
At the end of our stay at the Farm, on a day when we don't know it's coming, a siren blares across the base. It means the simulation is over. The explosions stop. The interrogations shut down. The instructors playing terrorists and cabinet members get up in mid-meeting and walk away.
We just stand there for a minute, in the deadened aftermath of the fake town square, like survivors of an apocalyptic event, unsure what to do now that our world has evaporated. I ask myself, sitting by the lake, how we could sound a siren to end the real war game the way this morning's blast ended our training one.
A few days – and a lot of alcohol – later, we pack up and head back to Washington DC, dozing in happy exhaustion in the darkened warmth of the blacked-out bus.
Amid the cookie-cutter condos of Arlington I brace myself to face reality in the form of Anthony. But I find our apartment empty. Anthony is gone. And in the stillness, I'm flooded with relief
Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA will be on sale October 17.
Written by: Ben Hoyle
© The Times of London