She left the CIA in frustration. Now her spy novel is racking up awards. (2024)

She felt each boom like an electric jolt as she was trying to sleep in her Alexandria, Va., apartment.

It was August 2006, and Ilana Berry was then a 30-year-old Central Intelligence Agency case officer. Outside, construction crews were beginning work on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, knocking down the old expanse to make way for a new six-lane roadway.

But each rumble threw Berry off the steady anchors of time and place, hurling her back to her last year stationed in war-rocked Baghdad. There, she had spent sleepless nights alone in a trailer as insurgent mortars and rockets screamed into the Green Zone, the central area of the Iraqi capital where the American military, diplomatic and intelligence staffs were housed.

“I remember waking up and having the worst panic attack of my life,” she recalled. “I called my parents to say that we are all under attack.”


To cope, Berry began tracking when the crews would do demolitions and set an alarm for herself to stay awake. She began writing, caging the emotional fallout of her time in Iraq into the tidy frames of sentences. That writing would kick off a sequence of events that would pit her against the agency’s bureaucracy and end in her resignation.

But it would also start her second act as a celebrated, award-winning novelist — one that would be eventually be invited back to the CIA.

War zone

Berry applied to join the CIA while attending law school at the University of Virginia, believing it would combine her interests in international relations and intelligence work with her sense of patriotic mission.

Raised outside D.C., she was a 1994 graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. She spent time in the Balkans after graduating from Haverford College, an experience that led to a position as an intelligence analyst with the Defense Department. “I loved the work of intel, and I wanted to make it my career,” Berry said. “So the CIA is the place to go, right?”


After being accepted, she trained at Camp Peary near Williamsburg, Va., known as “The Farm.” Much of that training was about logistics — how to conduct surveillance, how to know if you are being surveilled. But the more in-depth psychological elements made Berry wonder if she was in the right place.

“Your whole training is basically how to find people’s vulnerabilities,” Berry said. “What are their motivations? Is it flattery or vanity or revenge, or do they hate their boss? That was never an easy fit for me.”

But Berry graduated with high marks and volunteered to be stationed in Iraq for a year-long assignment. She arrived in 2004 as doubts were beginning to stain America’s initial reasoning for toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime. Among the CIA team, there was a growing realization that there were no weapons of mass destruction in the country — the main justification for the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion.


Berry found that the CIA trailers didn’t have the armored protections or safety protocols in place like their military counterparts. But when she advised CIA headquarters about the danger, she was ignored, she said.

“We weren’t taking the precautions that we should have been,” Berry said. “And it was clear we knew we weren’t.”

One specific incident left Berry with doubts about the CIA’s mission. She got a tip from an Iraqi informant about a possible suspect involved in the 2003 truck bombing of the U.N. Baghdad headquarters that left 22 people dead, including the commissioner for human rights at the time. Berry’s tip led to the suspect being taken into custody, but he claimed he was not involved. Still, he was carted off to a detention facility. Berry later heard from other officers that they were unsure of his guilt, and she worries he may have been wrongfully pulled into the maze of America’s post-9/11 detention system.


In response to Berry’s allegations about her time in Iraq, a CIA agency spokesperson did not address specific complaints or allegations but said the agency “is absolutely committed to fostering a safe, respectful, and equitable workplace environment for all our employees, and we have taken significant steps to ensure that, including strengthening the Agency’s handling of issues when they arise.”

The living conditions. The murky mission. All that seemed to Berry to fuel rampant alcoholism at the CIA station. “Baghdad really screwed me up,” she said.

Back home

Her tour done but still living with the emotional aftershocks in Virginia, Berry kept writing. “My goal was never to publish my account of Baghdad,” she said. “It was to make sense of what happened.”

She had volunteered to go next to Afghanistan and was enrolled in Farsi-language classes. During that time, Berry volunteered to the agency that she had been writing about her experience.


According to agency regulation, all current and former CIA employees must submit any writing they plan on releasing to the CIA’s Publication Classification Review Board, which determines whether a potential book or screenplay or writing contains classified information. After the agency learned Berry was working on a memoir, she submitted the manuscript.

When her writing came back, it was covered in redactions that Berry felt made little sense. “They redacted my height and weight,” she said. “They redacted the color of the sky. These are clearly things that are not classified.”

Berry felt the pushback was all due to the unflattering light the account showed the agency. Her complaints in Iraq had already begun to hurt her prospects at the CIA. Her follow-up assignment in Afghanistan was pulled. She channeled her frustration into an appeal over her manuscript.


“I fought every single redaction, if for no other reason than to stick it to them that this was wrong,” she said.

Mark Zaid, a D.C. attorney who regularly represents CIA officers and helped Berry with her appeal, said he believes the board’s difficult responses were tied to the protective stance the agency assumed at the time. “There is a deep-seated paranoia and ignorance among security officers,” he said. “Their internal processes are geared for damage control, no matter whether there is damage or not.” Zaid later hired Berry into his law firm as an of counsel attorney.

In response to questions about Berry’s past conflicts with the review board, an agency spokesperson said the “CIA does not comment on details regarding specific prepublication reviews.” The spokesperson added that “the Board is open to authors’ requests to reconsider content they believe is unclassified.”


Eventually, the review board agreed with most of Berry’s appeal and removed most of the redactions from her manuscript.

By then, she had already resigned from agency, frustrated with the fight and her experiences in Iraq. She was married and a new mother. Though she had won the right to publish her account, she no longer wanted her own story — and the trauma and personal doubt she had put in writing — out there.

Write what you know

Despite her clash with agency, piling the mixed feelings about her time as a spy into a memoir reminded Berry how much she enjoyed writing. As she launched herself into a new career as an attorney and later followed her husband to Bahrain in 2012, Berry kept at it. Now it was fiction, but Berry found all her sentences echoed back to her time in Iraq.

The pages that would eventually become “The Peaco*ck and the Sparrow,” a novel featuring a weary CIA officer caught in the turbines of Middle Eastern political change, include themes mined straight from Berry’s time at the agency. Its first lines plunge a reader into the morally ambiguous head space Berry learned in her training. “It was the ability to please that you learned as a spy: smoking a cigarette, offering compliments you didn’t mean, falling down drunk from having accepted too many vodkas,” Berry writes.


The novel’s CIA protagonist, Shane Collins, faces the same indifference from higher-ups that Berry said she saw in Iraq. She funneled the same problematic behavior she witnessed — the drinking, the war-zone infidelities — into her main character. The gnawing doubts about the guilt of the bombing suspect also popped up as a plot point.

Perhaps the most surprising element in her new work as a novelist was how easy it was to submit the manuscript to the review board. They demanded no significant redactions.

“Time had passed, and I had built up a good relationship with the board,” Berry said.

Berry’s debut novel, “The Peaco*ck and the Sparrow,” was released by Atria Books in May 2023 under the pen name I.S. Berry. The book was feted by both the New Yorker and NPR on their annual lists of the best books of the year. This month, the novel also won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for best first novel by an American novelist, a significant industry award whose past recipients include Viet Thanh Nguyen and Tana French.

Even with that acclaim, Berry was still surprised when the CIA invited her to speak with Invisible Ink, a group of agency employees who are also writers.

“I was not exactly a poster child for the place,” Berry said. “But they assured me they valued authenticity over filtered plaudits, which were words I never thought I’d hear.”


Last September, Berry was sitting in her car in the ocean of parking spaces sprawling outside CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Even with her invitation, she felt “nervous as hell,” she said. “I did feel like it was a family reunion where I was estranged from my family.”

But Berry then met her agency contact, a member of Invisible Ink, who had asked her to come and speak. She was taken into a conference room where she spoke to about a dozen current agency staff members to discuss writing, publishing and working with the agency’s review board.

As she was leaving, Berry was asked to film a video about the career paths of officers after the agency. She agreed.

“This was such a formative part of my life,” she said. “They are people who have had that same singular experience as me.” Going back to the CIA, Berry said, “felt like I had rebuilt this broken bridge.”

In the meantime, she’s working away on a new novel. It’s another spy tale.


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Berry visited Invisible Ink last February. It was last September. The article has been corrected.

She left the CIA in frustration. Now her spy novel is racking up awards. (2024)


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