When is a friendship more than a friendship?
As old spies are fond of saying, in the intelligence world things are not always as they seem. Marilyn Ranch (an alias), a plaintiff in the pending lawsuit against the CIA, would certainly agree. While other female spies say they were forced out of the agency because of affairs overseas, Ranch asserts she was falsely accused of being a lesbian-and of sleeping with her recruited agent.
Ranch's credentials are impressive. A 28-year CIA veteran, she had become one of its most experienced female case officers. In the 1980s, after work analyzing missile systems, she switched to the operations side and was soon working to upset the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. "I loved it," she says. "Your boss would say, 'Go think of something to defeat the Russians.'And we did."
Fluent in three languages, Ranch later joined a "flying team," a U.S.-based unit that deploys overseas. Posing as scientists, she and her group headed to conferences where they met technical experts from across the Middle East, including the infamous "Dr. Germ," then ginning up Iraq's biological weapons program.
After going through a divorce, Ranch decided to go it alone as a single mother and adopted a child from overseas. Her next posting was in Latin America, where she found herself the only female case officer among, as she put it, "a very macho" CIA staff. Most of their work focused on economic targets, and Ranch, sociable and with good language skills, proved a top recruiter of foreign agents. Her prize catch was an influential diplomat from a Latin American country who had access to terrorism files. But the woman was emotional and "high maintenance," according to Ranch, and took a great deal of her time. Too much time, said her superiors, who ordered her to break contact and hand off the woman to another case officer. The woman resisted, Ranch says, and then started to fall apart.
Denial. Ranch quietly kept up her contact with the woman through phone calls and E-mails. Then one day, she says, the chief of station called her into his office and asked when her last contact with the woman had been. Ranch foolishly denied she'd been in contact. As Ranch tells it, her boss exploded. "This is rubbish!" he yelled, throwing her reports on the desk. He pulled out a stack of records showing their E-mails and phone calls. "I don't care if you screw sheep, but you can't screw your asset."
"I was floored," Ranch recalls. "It was clear to me this was the end of my career." She'd not only been caught in a lie but stood accused of having a lesbian affair with her agent. Her boss, she says, had apparently misinterpreted "hugs and kisses" phrases at the end of their E-mails-a common salutation in Latin America. Ranch resolutely denies her relationship was intimate and blames it on the culture of the CIA. "I was a female case officer doing better than the men; I was single, not dating, and had a kid," she says. "I didn't fit in anyone's mold."
In three weeks she was gone, back at headquarters undergoing four days of intensive polygraphing. Finally, in October 2003, she was forced to resign. The CIA declined to comment on the case, citing Ranch's role in the pending lawsuit. But Ranch readily cites the CIA's reasons for ending her near-three-decade career: lack of judgment and failure to report contact with foreign nationals-including those with repairmen and her daughter's baby sitters and teachers. Ranch is now a self-described "soccer mom" in the Washington, D.C., area.
This story appears in the April 30, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.