Tracy Walder, now a history teacher at The Hockaday School, wasn’t much interested in television while growing up in Southern California, but on Sept. 11, 2001, she scrambled to find a TV.
The rookie operations officer for the CIA was at work around 9 a.m. when she learned that a plane struck the World Trade Center in New York City.
(ABOVE: Mother, FBI special agent, Hockaday history teacher, CIA counterterrorism pro. Kent Baker Photography)
Walder found a TV screen, “just in time to see the second plane hit,” she said.
“We felt responsible,” she recalled, “like we should’ve done something to stop this. But you don’t have a lot of time to sit around and feel bad for yourself.”
Walder helped track weapons of mass destruction across the globe through 2004. Later, seeking stateside work, she became a special agent in the FBI’s Los Angeles field office.
We felt responsible, like we should’ve done something to stop (9/11). But you don’t have a lot of time to sit around and feel bad for yourself. -Tracy Walder
Gritty stuff compared to her days at the University of Southern California where she earned a history degree and joined a sorority. She also has a master’s degree in education from Chapman University.
If all this sounds like the makings of a TV drama — it is.
ABC-TV, with actress Ellen Pompeo of “Grey’s Anatomy” as a producer, is developing a show based on Walder’s career. There’s a book deal with publisher St. Martin’s Press.
“Tracy’s real-life story is fascinating,” Pompeo said, “and we are honored that she has entrusted our team to put a fictional twist on her real-life wild ride.”
Walder, now married and mother of a toddler daughter in Highland Park, said she loved history in high school, and her curiosity flourished on family trips abroad.
She wanted to teach, but felt other experiences would enhance her career, so she handed her résumé to CIA recruiters at a job fair; by graduation, she had a job.
Walder went to Afghanistan and other hotspots. She saw the grisly aftermaths of suicide bombings and mass executions.
She prefers not to give details but confirms the CIA aggressively interrogated prisoners. She’s against torture and understands people’s distaste of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like sleep deprivation.
“No one got enjoyment out of that,” she said. “But truly, in our hearts, we felt we were going to stop attacks.
“Now it’s my job to put in some perspective about that.”
Walder teaches a foreign policy class that explores ethical complexities of espionage. She discusses all sides of controversial techniques, from waterboarding to drone strikes.
Her students — all female, Hockaday being a girls’ school — don’t flinch at grim descriptions of current events. They focus on solutions, Walder said, like whether to prop up “failed states” where anti-U.S. terrorism can incubate.
“These are girls who obviously want more information,” she said, “so their curiosity levels are really high. And I love that for them.”
Walder noted that many of her students have interned at the FBI or applied to the CIA. That inspires her, and she wants to help empower others to take similar paths.
“This is the best job I ever had,” she said, “and these girls are my role models.”