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  • Valerie Plame

What It’s Actually Like Being a Woman in the CIA

Ex-spy Valerie Plame on the “secret history” of women in the agency.

Workers walk across the entry hall at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on Feb. 1, 1993. LARRY DOWNING/SYGMA/SYGMA VIA GETTY IMAGES

In 2003, senior White House officials outed me as a covert CIA agent. They leaked my identity after my then-husband, U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson, wrote an op-ed stating that the George W. Bush administration lied about the threat posed by Iraq ahead of its decision to invade the country.

I have spent a lot of time in the decades since processing the trauma of that experience. It endangered my assets, ended my covert career, and unsettled my family. Even events that happened much later took me back to that time, such as then-President Donald Trump’s 2018 pardon of Scooter Libby, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, who was convicted of perjury and lying to the FBI during its investigation into the leak. In those years, I was called a liar, a traitor, and—in the words of one Republican congressman—a “glorified secretary.”

Yet when I read journalist Liza Mundy’s new book, The Sisterhood: The Secret History of the Women at the CIA, uncomfortable memories came up that I had not grappled with since my time as a spy. The book touched me in ways I did not expect. I realized that I had mostly repressed the toll inflicted on me and my female colleagues from the many years of working in a man’s world.

Former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson is sworn in before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Washington on March 16, 2007. MARK WILSON/GETTY IMAGES

When I was a child, the U.S. government passed Title IX, which prohibited sex-based discrimination in any school that received federal funding. By the time I was a teenager, my suburban Philadelphia high school had a variety of sports teams for me to choose from that were just as robust as what the boys had. I was fortunate to have parents who never suggested that my gender should dictate what I could pursue. In fact, my father made it a point to tell me that I could “do anything I wanted to, if I put my mind to it.” Even my college years passed in ignorance of the sexism ingrained in U.S. society.

Then, as a young woman, I joined the CIA. Suddenly, it became clear that the real world operated on a different set of principles.

The CIA that I entered at the height of the Cold War was very much a man’s world. The agency had only recently started to recruit women into intelligence operations, rather than into secretary positions and other support roles. A deep network of male officers still called the shots.

As I began the rigorous training to become a field operations officer, I looked around at the women already in the CIA. The more senior ones—none of whom were in the highest ranks—tended to be unmarried, childless, sometimes embittered, and tough as nails. Even then, I recognized that my opportunity to succeed came at the expense of their trailblazing.

Plame early in her career in the Mediterranean. COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

I also knew I didn’t want to become like them. Couldn’t I be a successful officer and have a family? The terms “sexual harassment” and “gender discrimination,” much less “microaggression” and “unconscious bias,” had no meaning to my small cohort of female ops officers. We simply had to accept the casual misogyny that the agency’s alpha males tossed around.

Sometimes, it was explicit: My friend was told by her boss, the station chief at her first assignment in Africa, that she should go home, get married, and have a baby—and what the hell did she think she was doing in operations anyway? Other times, it was implicit: Promotions went to young male bucks over female colleagues who were just as successful in running and recruiting spies.

The contributions of female spies to the CIA—and the barriers they faced—are the focus of Mundy’s deeply researched and highly readable book. The Sisterhood starts off slowly, with a recap of women who entered the U.S. intelligence services during World War II. Thousands of women flocked to the job opportunities that the war opened up at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA’s predecessor, as men were sucked into the giant war-fighting machine. These OSS workers were among the first women in U.S. history to be formally recruited into intelligence work.

As Mundy recounts, these early recruits were told to report to an unassuming brownstone in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. The men were instructed to change into Army fatigues in an attempt to strip them of social class, job, or military rank before the interview process. The women were taken to another room and asked to remove their coats and hats; since they were women, Mundy writes, “no further equalization was thought to be needed.”

Many of the women recruited into the OSS in the 1940s were highly educated, sophisticated, and multilingual. The test designed for female recruits assessed how well they could file papers. Yet once they were inside the agency, a few of these women moved into field intelligence operations. They demonstrated verve, bravery, and intellect at every turn as they set up effective spy rings, solicited intelligence from Nazi and other Axis officials, and passed important intelligence back to Washington.

After the war, a collective amnesia seemed to settle over Washington. As the country quickly forgot the vital role of women in the war effort, women were once again relegated to support jobs. The 1950s and ’60s looked something like Mad Men, where secretaries wore white gloves and pantyhose to the office and deferred to their male bosses. President Harry S. Truman established the CIA in 1947, but the agency did not begin to hire more than primarily white men with Ivy League degrees for another couple decades. It was not until the 1970s and ’80s that it recruited women of equal intelligence, nerve, and—as my father would say—moxie to do clandestine work. I was a beneficiary of this sea change. I joined the CIA because I wanted to serve my country, it would get me overseas, and it seemed like it would be a lot more interesting than what my peers were doing.

Mundy’s book picks up steam as she delves deeper into the era when women were admitted, grudgingly, into the heart of secret CIA missions. She follows a few of them closely, including Lisa Manfull, a top student at Brown University from a cosmopolitan family, who was hired in 1968 to join the CIA’s career training program at a lower paygrade than male recruits. Manfull eventually became a successful clandestine operative despite higher-ups trying to keep her in desk jobs for years. Mundy also highlights fearsome agency legend Eloise Page, who started as a secretary to the OSS’s founder and became the CIA’s first female station chief in 1978.

A technician works on a tape recording inside the CIA headquarters on Feb. 1, 1993. LARRY DOWNING/SYGMA/SYGMA VIA GETTY IMAGES

Despite not being allowed to take the full operational courses at “The Farm,” the CIA training facility in Virginia, into the 1970s, these women proved their worth. They succeeded in work as varied as negotiating with terrorists who highjacked a plane in Malta and dealing adroitly with intelligence “walk-ins”—when a potential foreign agent shows up unexpectedly at an officer’s home or an embassy with promises to provide intelligence in return for something they desire.

The 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas were a catalyst for change. During the hearings, the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee listened as Anita Hill, a Black woman, calmly testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her a decade earlier. The Senate ultimately confirmed Thomas—and Hill faced criticism and death threats from the public—but the hearings brought a newfound awareness of gender-based discrimination to Washington. They influenced the election of 1992, which media outlets dubbed “The Year of the Woman” after a record number of women won seats in the Senate.

In 1992, the CIA also commissioned a “Glass Ceiling Study,” which found that men rose to much higher ranks than women in the organization. Women filled 40 percent of the agency’s professional positions but only 10 percent of the jobs in the Senior Intelligence Service, comprising top agency executives. Mundy writes that female CIA employees responded to the study with a sense of relief—maybe, they thought, the agency’s culture would finally change. The men, by and large, seemed puzzled by it.

Then-CIA officer Janine Brookner sued the agency in 1994 for federal sex discrimination after being falsely accused of professional misconduct and threatened with a demotion and criminal sanctions. The lawsuit ended with a cash settlement and Brookner’s resignation. Brookner went on to law school and used her degree to specialize in federal discrimination cases. Around the same time, female case officers filed a class action suit, claiming that the CIA had a pattern of sex-based discrimination; in the 1995 settlement, Mundy recounts, the CIA admitted that it “discriminated systematically against its women secret agents for years,” as the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.

Mundy is at her sharpest when she writes about the women in Alec Station, a CIA unit that followed al Qaeda when few in Washington thought it was a threat. The analyst who led the unit, Mike Scheuer, filled his overlooked and underfunded team with women. Scheuer had no qualms about hiring women. As he told Mundy, women were “experts at minutiae, putting pieces of information together” that men might miss.

As the search for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden intensified, the women tracking him diligently compiled intelligence, but the George W. Bush administration seemed to put their increasingly dire predictions on the back burner. On Aug. 6, 2001, CIA analyst Barbara Sude wrote a memo titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the US.” The Bush cabinet did not meet until Sept. 4, 2001, to discuss the threat. A week later, 9/11 happened.

The grief and guilt of the women who had warned the U.S. government for years about a potential attack is palpable in Mundy’s book. As one undercover case officer told Mundy, “For two years of my life, I was trying to do the right thing, and people died, and you felt like it was your fault. … And it really, it affected us a lot.” Their rage was channeled into the hunt for bin Laden that ultimately led to his capture.

Gina Haspel is sworn in as the CIA director during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in Washington on May 9, 2018. ZACH GIBSON/GETTY IMAGES

Mundy’s book left me both inspired and disheartened. Many of the women in her book are now retired or dead. At great personal cost, they poured their lives into their intelligence careers. As I read it, I found myself empathizing with their hardships and remembering my own.

On the first day of my initial overseas assignment, I was told to go see the chief of station, a highly respected CIA officer. As I nervously entered his paneled office, he leaned back in his chair, feet on the massive wooden desk and unlit cigar in his mouth. He didn’t say anything to me. He merely took the cigar out of his mouth and motioned with it for me to turn around, a little twirl. Confused, I spun around and faced him again with a quizzical look. He broke into a smile. “Oh, you’ll do,” he said. I realized he was evaluating how I looked. It was crushing.

Thankfully, as Mundy shows, a lot has changed since then. Female CIA officers today have it better but still face quiet discrimination and barriers to success, as nearly all professional women do. Although the professional advances women have made are heartening, Mundy lets some women in the agency off the hook.

For instance, she glosses over the 2018 confirmation hearing of the CIA’s first female director, Gina Haspel, who admitted to a significant role in one of the agency’s darkest hours: the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” otherwise known as torture, in the aftermath of 9/11. The same can be said for Freda Bikowsky, an ex-CIA analyst known as the “queen of torture” who helped in bin Laden’s capture. I would have liked to see Mundy acknowledge that female officers in positions of power and responsibility—just like their male counterparts—have caused harm, exercised terrible judgment, and failed to mentor other women.

While Mundy’s book is a compelling and very good read, The Sisterhood is probably misnamed. It’s true that female CIA officers find comfort in their female friendships and can be supportive of each other as they advocate for equal rights in a male-dominated environment. But years of fighting for scraps—not just against their male counterparts, but against each other—has extracted a price. A climate of suspicion and unhealthy competition remains, and ultimately, this weakens U.S. national security.


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