Does the CIA have a double standard when its spies cozy up to foreigners? Veteran female officers speak out.
It was not your usual beltway gathering of eagles. In the summer of 2004, the 10 women who gathered in a downtown Washington law office arrived with aliases, classified résumés, and tales of a secret bureaucracy run amok. They came to compare notes, soothe long-frayed nerves, and launch what may be the latest challenge to the embattled Central Intelligence Agencya class action lawsuit on how America's premier intelligence agency treats its female spies.
The group ranged from young recruits to some of the CIA's most experienced, most decorated female case officers. All agreed on one thing: They had been driven out of the agency for intimate affairs and close friendships with foreign nationals, while male counterparts in similar situations had gotten off scot free. Their complaint, now pending at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has flown below the radaruntil now. But it has CIA officials on edge, alleging that the suit, if green-lighted by the EEOC, will open old wounds, expose classified data, and unfairly tar the agency with the complaints of disgruntled ex-staffers.
The women say they are indeed embittered, angry that the agency to which they entrusted their careers and safety had turned on them. Twenty-five have now joined the complaint, and attorneys expect at least 50 to eventually sign on. The EEOC will decide later this year if the case should move forward, but the proposed suit has already galvanized the women behind it. Until now, none have spoken out.
U.S. News has interviewed five of the women at length and talked to many of their former colleagues. All but one of the five insisted on anonymity, concerned over violating secrecy pledges and possible agency retribution. While careful not to disclose classified material, they each offered detailed accounts about friendships and love affairs overseas, while battling an agency they say employs unjustifiable double standards. They describe falling into Kafkaesque nightmares of rumor and innuendo, abusive polygraph operators, and secret hearings from which they were banned. "You have two organizations," says one, a veteran spy who once ranked among the CIA's top female operatives. "There's the organization I worked in and thrived in, but there's a dark underbelly that nobody knows about unless you have a run-in with it. Nobody knows about it because you're not allowed to talk about it."
The case could revive an image of a CIA that its leaders have long sought to eraseof a brainy club of macho mandarins, many with Ivy League pedigrees, who ran secret operations and briefed presidents but had little use for women and minorities, except in back-office support jobs. The suit revolves around what are known at the agency as "close and continuing relationships," in which staffers must report all regular contact with foreign nationalsbe they friends, cleaning ladies, car mechanics, or, most of all, lovers. The rules are explicit, if not always observed in practice. And that, say the women, is the problem. At the heart of their complaints are the CIA's Centers for Security and Counterintelligence. The centers function, in effect, as the agency's internal affairs division, rooting out moles and safeguarding secrets. But the Security Center, in particular, they say, is dominated by tradition-minded men who believe women are too vulnerable to get emotionally entangled with foreigners. As a result, they claim, the center is driving out some of the CIA's most talented female officers.