The Women of the CIA

The female CIA officers killed in December were a testament to the progress made in a historically paternalistic agency. Former CIA officer Valerie Wilson on the cracks in the spy world’s ceiling.

Larry Downing / Reuters

The shocking massacre in Khost, Afghanistan, on December 30th left seven CIA officers dead by an al Qaeda suicide bomber at their base. Among the fallen: two women, one the chief of base and reportedly a mother of three. She was no cardboard airhead figure toting an AK-47, but rather a highly trained intelligence professional who was doing her job when she and her colleagues paid the ultimate sacrifice. It is time to recognize that women play a vital role in ensuring our national security and that they are very much on the frontlines, taking all the same risks but recognized and credited much less than their male counterparts.

As a former covert CIA operations officer, I have always been nonplussed by the portrayal of female CIA officers in the popular media. The girl (and it’s always a girl) is usually nothing more substantial than a one-dimensional cartoon character, always stunningly sexy without much in the way of intellect to balance a heavy reliance on sheer physicality. For decades, the message has been drummed into the public mind that female CIA officers must rely on their good looks and clever ways with a weapon to be successful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked by seemingly reasonable people whether I had to sleep with sources to get the intelligence, and did I carry a gun and have I ever killed anyone? The answer to each of those questions: no.

The female pioneers at the CIA were tough as nails—they had to be. I met some of these women during my time at the CIA and they could intimidate me like nobody else.

The CIA was the epitome of the “old boys club” for years. The World War II precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services, was often jokingly, but quite accurately, referred to as “Oh, So Social.” CIA’s premier spy cadre was carefully recruited from the male, moneyed, white, establishment crowd that went to the Ivies. For the first four decades of the CIA’s existence, the very few females that got into operations were usually drawn from the secretarial or support staffs. These smart, persistent, and gutsy women tired of seeing the men have all the fun and back-doored themselves into case-officer jobs—meeting and recruiting assets, planning ops, and in some rare cases in the 1970s, managing operations overseas. These women were tough as nails—they had to be—and they poured everything into their careers, often at the expense of their personal lives. I met some of these women during my time at the CIA and they could intimidate me like nobody else. My female colleagues and I owe them a deep debt of gratitude for their groundbreaking careers.

In the mid-1980s, with the Reagan military buildup to counter the perceived Soviet threat, the agency benefited and grew significantly in size. Under Director Bill Casey, the CIA loosened its recruitment policies, involving schools other than the Ivies. Additionally, they began hiring women specifically to go into operations. Of course, attitudes take a long time to change and many a dinosaur who thought women should really just be at home and not running clandestine agents still roamed the halls at headquarters. At one point, someone made an observation to me that I think helps explain the very slow acceptance of women ops officers in the CIA. She noted that white men, used to being on the top of the heap, in power and giving orders, identified most closely with young, white men like themselves. They understood them and felt comfortable being their bosses (“He’s just like me when I was a rookie!”). As a consequence, it was the young men who got the plum assignments and opportunities for advancement that didn’t come nearly as often for the women, despite increasing gender equality in the operational career track. The CIA’s increasing corporate commitment to diversity in the 1990s applied not only to gender, but to race and ethnicity as well. In the agency—as in workplaces across America—it takes time for attitudes and actions to catch up to the broader aspirations espoused at the top.

In 1991, women in the CIA had enough of the blatant discrimination and protested to senior agency officials. In response, the CIA commissioned the “Glass Ceiling Study” to see if artificial barriers against advancement existed. Surprise! They did. Partly as a result of the study, the agency was forced to pay out $1 million in 1995 to more than 400 women in a class-action suit involving sex discrimination. The case cited lack of promotions, harassment on the job, and dead-end assignments. In my opinion, the lawsuit cost women CIA officers some ground because it tended to ossify ingrained attitudes that the girls can’t play like the boys. However, it was necessary and did eventually help level the playing field.

Despite these cultural obstacles, there is a long and storied history of women serving their country loyally. From Julia Child to Virginia Hall (an OSS heroine who worked behind enemy lines in France during World War II), there is no doubt that women played critical roles in maintaining America’s national security. From my admittedly biased point of view, I don’t know why it took so long for the CIA to figure out that in many respects, women can make better operations officers. First of all, women are less threatening and, in many parts of the world, simply blend into the background and are dismissed as of little consequence. This obviously works to a woman’s advantage if she is making a clandestine meeting. Women know how to flatter, are generally more observant, and definitely read body language better. One of the most important skills an ops officer must have is the ability to walk into an unknown and perhaps dangerous environment (and this can’t be taught) to “get it” right away. Finally, there is the simple fact that being female offers the immediately understandable and obvious reason to be in a clandestine meeting with a male.

As I was working my way up the ranks at the CIA, I began to look around for a female mentor—someone who could show me how it was done. Someone who was able to retain her femininity, able to juggle a family, and still be respected for her operational judgment. I’m sorry to say that I never found that role model. All the potential mentors in the ops arena, at least, were either divorced, had no children, or struck me as dysfunctional in some way. It was distressing, but not surprising. That was the legacy of waiting so long to bring women into the ops ranks in a meaningful way. The glass ceiling at the CIA, like most of corporate America, is still in place, but at least it has plenty of cracks.

It is obvious that one doesn’t join the CIA for public glory. You can’t tell anyone where you really work. If you are killed in the line of duty, no one knows your name. What you do get is a star on the wall in the lobby at headquarters. One doesn’t join the CIA for financial gain. If you are lucky, and work really hard, you might retire at a level of GS-15, and make around $100,000 a year. One joins the CIA because it is a unique opportunity to serve your country, and at the risk of sounding too corny, serving something larger than yourself. You are doing something interesting, often overseas. I believe that there is a clear link between how female CIA officers are portrayed in the media and the continuing, if diminishing, discrimination against women in the agency itself. The chief of base who died in Khost deserves to be remembered in history as a woman doing her job in a dangerous part of the world, not some silly cartoon character.

Valerie Wilson is a former CIA operative whose covert identity was revealed in a syndicated newspaper article in 2003. She is the author of Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House.