Does the CIA have a double standard when its spies cozy up to foreigners? Veteran female officers speak out. An exclusive report.
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 Agency-a 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 radar-until 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 erase-of 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 nationals-be 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.
Nonsense, says the CIA. Agency officials, citing privacy restrictions, declined to respond directly to individual complaints, but they are adamant that the women have no case. "As a matter of course, we don't comment on pending litigation," says Mark Mansfield, the CIA's chief spokesman, but he insists that today's CIA plays no favorites. "Our code of conduct-and the very high standards to which CIA officers are held-apply to all our officers regardless of their gender." Some familiar with the CIA's handling of these matters, given anonymity, are more frank. "It's so easy to claim that there's a double standard," says one, who points out that many of the women were fired not for having affairs but for being insubordinate or concealing their relationships. "A decision to terminate someone's employment is not made hastily or lightly," the source says. "Invariably there's a darn good reason." Others stress that intimate relationships with foreigners have led to serious security breaches in the past and that the agency can't afford to be lax.
In their conversations with U.S. News, however, none of the women suggested that the CIA let down its guard. What they argue is not that their records were perfect-they are not-but that men in similar situations have been treated far more leniently. Consider, for one, the case of Sherry Norris.
Bright future. Norris (an alias) was part of a new generation of American spies. Fresh out of Boston University, she joined the CIA in 1996. After working to interpret top-secret imagery of terrorist sites, she made an unusual jump from analysis to operations and went off on a two-year tour in a South Asian country. By all accounts, Norris performed well as a young case officer, recruiting one spy in particular who turned heads at her CIA "station" inside the U.S. Embassy. Her job evaluations were strong and, as she neared the end of her tour, the future seemed wide open. Then she fell in love.
At a party, Norris met a Middle Eastern diplomat, an economics officer from a close U.S. ally. The attraction was immediate. They began to date, and Norris dutifully advised CIA headquarters of the relationship. A cable came back from her bosses approving the contact, but she recalls that male friends in the agency warned her to be careful. "They're tougher on women," one told her.
The relationship soon turned serious, and Norris told headquarters everything-even when they first made love. "You have to report it all," she explains. "It was pretty embarrassing." To cover herself, Norris also wrote a cable listing all the people her friend worked with. "I didn't know what I was getting into," she now says. The response was chilling: One of the persons, based on years-old data, might have ties to that nation's intelligence service. This would hardly be unusual-in any embassy-but the CIA's security people came down hard. Norris, they said, needed to end the relationship.
Norris couldn't believe it. Other embassy staffers were embroiled in romantic affairs both inside and outside the office, she says, including several male CIA officers who were actively dating foreigners-with few questions asked. But her tour was nearly up and, unwilling to jeopardize her job, Norris promised she'd break things off when she left for America in three weeks.
Heartbroken, she returned to New York for home leave. "I said to myself, if he contacts me, I'll respond," she recalls. It took only a day. On her return was an E-mail from him-wanting to come visit. "We were really in love," she says.
It was the summer of 2002. As Norris tells it, days after her lover's arrival, they traveled to Washington, and she reported everything to the chief of counterintelligence in her division. "This stuff happens all the time," the man reassured her. With an otherwise spotless record, Norris figured she'd probably just get a letter of reprimand-that's what happened to the men she'd heard about. But in October, the agency's Counterintelligence Center called and said the matter had been reviewed; Norris would need to end the relationship after all. The officials were adamant. "There's no working with you on this," one told her. Forced to choose between love and the CIA, Norris reluctantly picked her career. She even had to run her excuse for breaking up by the counterintelligence people. But her lover kept calling and writing, prompting Norris to change her phone number and block his E-mail.
Secret panel. Still, it wasn't enough for the CIA's Security Office, which launched a formal investigation. Officials there grilled Norris for hours on a polygraph machine, asking if she'd disclosed classified information. Then they told her that she had failed the test and referred the matter to the FBI. She let investigators into her house and allowed them to download everything on her home computer.
Norris's case dragged on for another year. By then she had become one of a precious few at the CIA fluent in Arabic and was hoping for a promised next assignment to the Middle East. Her relationship had been over for two years, and the FBI, she says, had cleared her. But then came word that a Personnel Evaluation Board-a secret panel dominated by counterintelligence and security officers-was examining her case. The board found her "insubordinate"-for seeing her lover again-and voted to fire her. Norris was never allowed to meet with the board. "I was shocked," she says. "Shocked wasn't even the word. I did everything right, and I still got screwed." Security officials took away her badge and escorted her off the grounds. "I was told not to talk to anyone or I'd go to jail," she recalls. Higher-ups even suggested she leave Washington.
Norris, now 34, has stayed in the nation's capital, where she works with a prominent think tank. She remains bitter about her experience. "Why did I break up with this guy when none of it mattered?" she asks. "There's no happy ending. I lost him, and I lost my job."
The CIA has been down this road before. In 1995, the agency paid out nearly $1 million to over 400 women in a class action case involving sex discrimination. The complaints back then: lack of promotion, harassment on the job, dead-end assignments. Months before that settlement, the agency handed $410,000 more to one of its most senior female officers, Janine Brookner-also for sex discrimination. A 24-year CIA veteran, Brookner was a rising star at the agency until she became its first female chief of station in Latin America. Agency investigations, relying on staffers she had disciplined for wife-beating and drunkenness, smeared her as a lush and sexual provocateur.
With the money she won from the CIA, Brookner put herself through law school, and, since 1999, she has represented some 40 clients against the CIA. Brookner is the lead attorney in the current class action case. "Women started coming to me around 2002, complaining about double standards," she says. "I wondered how I could help them-appeals within the system just don't work."
The earlier cases pushed the CIA to change, but within limits, says Kent Harrington, a former senior official who ran the public affairs office at the time. "There clearly was plenty of movement by women, but the attitude and dominant culture didn't change that much," he says. "I don't think the system corrected itself through 1998, when I left." Agency officials insist they've made progress since then and cite personnel data to support their case: 39 percent of the CIA's espionage branch-the National Clandestine Service-is female, including more than a fifth of its case officers or spies; the number of women in the CIA's senior intelligence service-its executive cadre-grew from 14 percent in 1996 to 25 percent in 2006; and during the same time, the number of female station chiefs-the coveted top jobs overseas-rose from 12 percent to 17 percent.
"Right thing." Diversity is a hot topic within the current CIA leadership, which has been under fire for turning away potential recruits because they have foreign relatives or spent time overseas that can't be fully vetted. On Martin Luther King Day this year, Director Michael Hayden acknowledged the importance of diversity-and equality-in the ranks. "There is no second-class officer here," he told his troops. "We ... must continue to strive for a workforce that reflects our diverse world-not only because it is the right thing to do but because it is essential to our success." Notably, the new class action complaint aims to include not only current and past female staffers but also female job applicants, who Brookner believes have been turned away at a higher rate than men. As in the 1995 case, she hopes to use the courts to force the CIA to cough up personnel data, broken down by gender. Brookner and her clients believe the statistics will show a bias in favor of men.
CIA officials believe otherwise, but they are nonetheless pushing hard to keep the case out of court. They have argued to the EEOC that the complaints are not about sex discrimination but about the agency's internal security measures, which federal judges have ruled cannot be challenged in court. They have also moved to classify key filings in the proceedings.
Lora Griffith, a 19-year veteran of the CIA, is Brookner's lead plaintiff in the case. Griffith worked at the Pentagon on counterterrorism before joining the CIA in 1987. Among her early tasks was tracking Russian shipments to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Eager to go abroad, she learned Farsi, the language of Iran, then worked on Middle Eastern targets in western Europe and South Asia.
It was in Europe that Griffith's trouble began. In the anxious days after 9/11, she was teamed with an intelligence officer from a close U.S. ally. Their job was liaison-exchanging information and making sure their respective agencies had the latest intel on terrorism. "We became good friends," Griffith says. "He came to our house, he knew our kids, we socialized. We were very close."
Too close, according to the CIA. After returning to headquarters in 2003, Griffith found herself under investigation by the Security Center-even though the relationship had been short term and ended months earlier. Griffith tells of how, during a particularly grueling interrogation session, the polygraph operator boasted that he had nailed the FBI's Robert Hanssen, the infamous KGB mole, and then accused her of revealing secrets. It seemed absurd to Griffith, as sharing intelligence was part of her job. After hours of questioning, Griffith recalls, her interrogator shut off the polygraph and asked if she had ever shared information about embassy staffers. Of course she had, she says-her contact was interacting with them all the time. "Is that what's bothering you?" he asked. "Well, yes," Griffith responded, not sure what he meant. "Well," he declared, "that's the end of the interview."
Griffith claims the man misinterpreted her remarks as an admission of guilt. The next day she got a call from the Security Office asking her to stop by. There, a large woman at a round table pushed a box of tissues toward her and asked for her badge. After a 19-year career, Griffith was out of a job. Today, Griffith is a homemaker in Florida, where she looks after her two kids. She still can't believe what happened. "I know a half-dozen cases of guys who became close to foreign nationals," she says. "All these men have been far less candid than I was, but they're still at work over there."
To bolster their case, Griffith and the other women have assembled an intriguing list of male officers who they say have led rather colorful lives, with few repercussions. Topping the list is "Rusty" (another alias). According to a plaintiffs' filing to the EEOC, Rusty was a case officer with a background in paramilitary operations. He got involved with a foreign airline stewardess and, while based in "a dangerous Middle East country, went AWOL." Eventually, he turned up somewhere in the Middle East-stewardess in tow-after allegedly having broken his cover and revealing his alias. Rusty's overseas tour was cut short, but he soon received approval to marry the woman. His position now, according to the EEOC brief: chief of station at one of the CIA's largest posts overseas.
There are many Rustys out there, CIA veterans say. The problem, they explain, is that Rusty and his brethren come out of a long-standing tradition. Historically, the prestige jobs of station chief have gone mostly to men, some of whom engaged in escapades that many a retired old spook will launch into after a cocktail or two. More than one former case officer told U.S. News how staffers used agency safe houses for affairs-complete with condoms stashed in dresser drawers. "Guys could go out and get laid, and who's going to talk about that?" says veteran officer Milt Bearden, who started in 1964. "Guys couldn't get pregnant, and there were fewer marriages then with foreigners."
"Look, in the late 1960s and early '70s, most of the men fooled around," adds attorney Brookner, who started as a case officer in 1968. "They'd hire women, put on sex shows, take turns with hookers at a hotel. Everybody was having an affair with everyone else. If you slept with foreigners, you didn't report it. The guys were mostly married-of course they didn't report it."
Nonetheless, tough questions continued to be asked about long-term relationships with foreigners. For Bearden, who ran offices in a dozen countries over his long career, it was the "shoes in the closet" test for case officers. "If you look in the closet and her shoes are there, that's when I need to deal with this," he recalls. In 1984, when Bearden himself met a French woman in Nigeria he wanted to marry, he had to offer his resignation and submit to an investigation and polygraph.
Attitudes hardened in the mid-'90s, with revelations of the Aldrich Ames case. Ames, the agency's most notorious traitor, had an affair in Mexico City with an agent he was supposed to run and then concealed plans to marry her. It was but one sign of many that CIA security officers failed to heed. In the end, Ames compromised some 100 operations and led to the execution of at least 10 agents working for the West. The crackdown that followed his 1994 arrest devastated CIA morale and forced many good officers out. A key culprit, agency veterans say, was the Security Center's overreliance on the polygraph, the widely disputed "lie detector" machine that measures stress, not deception.
The crackdown also gave unprecedented power to the Security Office, which few at the agency are willing to cross even today. As one insider explained, "No one wants another Ames." But the secrecy of its work and a series of questionable cases have left the Security Center open to charges of lack of accountability. Making matters worse, say critics, is that security officers have a financial incentive to extract admissions from CIA staff-in the form of bonuses and performance awards of as much as $3,000.
Overblown? Agency officials respond that such charges are overblown and that the Security Center is subject to oversight from CIA management, the agency's inspector general, and congressional intelligence committees. Even some sympathetic to Brookner's current case say the office is evenhanded. "I think there's a tendency to overlook men, but on the other hand I've seen men fired for close and continuing relationships," says CIA veteran Robert Baer, on whose career the movie Syriana was based. "In my 21 years, I've never seen Security gratuitously go after somebody."
Bearden, who ran the Russian/East European division during the fall of the Soviet Union, suggests that women have gotten into more trouble simply because the intelligence world is full of men. "The main difference is that so many of the women's relationships were operational and liaison, and they developed into something," he says of the cases he saw. "Guys didn't bring home an intelligence contact because most of the people they were dealing with were male."
That, indeed, is the biggest problem with the women's EEOC case today, argue those close to the agency. "If a CIA officer has a romantic relationship with a foreigner and is honest and forthright about it, that's one thing," explains a knowledgeable source. "If an agency officer continues the relationship after being told to end it, is disingenuous, or conceals it altogether, that's another thing. It's a different matter altogether if an agency officer is having a romantic relationship with his or her recruited agent or with someone recruited from a foreign intelligence service. The counterintelligence and ethical concerns raised by either of these are obvious and serious."
Security concerns aside, the women's case falls short of the standards required for it to be certified a class action, the CIA has argued before the EEOC. The agency has scoured its records going back to 1995, officials say, and found only four women forced to leave, at least in part, because of unauthorized contact with foreigners. But that's not how it works, say the women U.S. News interviewed. Most are pushed out, they claim, on other charges. Words like unsuitability, lack of candor, insubordination, and security violations fill their personnel files-all because, they say, of their having flings and friendships that male officers routinely enjoyed. The impact is far-reaching: Security clearances are revoked, and the person is in effect blacklisted from work at the Pentagon, the FBI, or other agencies that do classified work. That's why key among the lawsuit's demands is expunging of their files. "It means more than money to the women," says Brookner.
By summer this year, an administrative judge at the EEOC's Washington field office will decide whether Norris, Griffith, and the others will get their day in court. If their class action suit goes forward-and if the CIA's personnel records indeed show a pattern of bias-the agency may well move to settle out of court. And if the case fails, the women say they at least will have shone some needed light on one of the darker corners of the CIA.
With Monica M. Ekman
This story appears in the April 30, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.