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Women in the CIA: Problems and Prospects

By Lindsay Moran Kegley

Lindsay Moran Kegley was a case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency from 1998-2003. She has published articles in the Washington Post, USA Today, The New York Times, Harvard magazine and Washingtonian. She spoke at the Miller Center of Public Affairs on March 15, 2004.

July 26, 2004 — In these somewhat troubled times for the Agency, the challenges faced by female officers are not radically different from those faced by their male colleagues. I will address some of those challenges or problems later, but I want to focus first on why I think women make such good spies.

When I was in training to be a CIA case officer at the Farm, one of my instructors said to me, “How did a nice girl like you end up in a place like this?” I was reloading an AK-47 at the time, so it wasn’t an unreasonable question. A year earlier, when I’d told my immediate family I was going to work at the Central Intelligence Agency, they were equally baffled by my choice. “A spy?” my mother asked. “What am I going to tell my friends?” “Don’t tell them anything,” I said. “Don’t tell anybody anything.” My father and my brother were concerned for another reason. “The government is a man’s world,” my father said, “You’ll never get ahead.” My brother sent me an article about sexual discrimination at the CIA, and asked, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”

I was determined. During adolescence and into college I’d been enthralled by anything and everything related to espionage. Even as a child I routinely conducted surveillance on the neighbors and communicated in secret code with my best friend who lived two doors down. In fact, I’d spent my entire life in preparation to be a spy. I’ll never forget the first time I walked through the doors of CIA headquarters. I stopped to stare at a wall covered with row upon row of gold stars, each one commemorating an intelligence officer who died in the course of service to our country. The untimely deaths of these men and women seemed to me as glorious as they were tragic, and I was filled with a sense of self-importance.

But as I began my orientation in the Director of Operations (DO), the clandestine branch of the Agency, I began to worry that perhaps my family had been right. I heard stories of female employees who’d fallen prey to duplicitous foreign men and spilled state secrets. These women’s careers ended in disgrace. The Agency’s message seemed clear: women were more susceptible to flattery and deception; women presented a greater security risk; women were weak. No matter that the most devastating CIA moles have been men, this attitude has pervaded Agency history! Notwithstanding these obvious prejudices, I began training and was immediately relieved to discover that as a woman I would not be at a disadvantage at all. In fact, the contrary was true. Why?

The job of a CIA case officer, or a spy, is to spot, assess, develop, and recruit foreigners who will sell secrets. A good foreign agent, or in Agency lingo, an asset, is a person who has access to information of value to the United States, and who is willing to secretly provide this information to his CIA case officer, usually in exchange for money. Like most women, I’d been spotting, assessing, developing, and recruiting people long before I joined the CIA.

In fact, many of us women trainees were already familiar with much of what the instructors — themselves veteran case officers and mostly men — were training us to do. We knew how to flatter, how to cajole, how to manipulate, how to hide our true feelings, how to internalize our misgivings, and most of all, how to keep a relationship secret. I certainly knew how to lie, and if caught, how to follow the DO mantra: deny, deny, deny.

In the 1990s, as I was beginning my career at the CIA, George Tenet, the then-popular CIA director, launched a hiring spree intended to build up the clandestine service. The DO began actively recruiting promising young men and women. In my group of trainees, close to 50 percent were women and, from the onset, the women thrived despite the Agency’s reputation as a bastion of good ole boys. The skills that many of the male trainees had to learn and practice came naturally to us.

The keystone to any and every successful recruitment is first spotting a target. At the CIA we were trained to ask the right questions in order to determine someone’s area of expertise, his access to information of value, his attitude to the United States and his vulnerabilities. Later, we would exploit these in trying to convince this person to become a spy.

Most women have been doing this sort of thing their entire lives. As little girls we can identify who are the most popular or important other little girls in the classroom and on the playground. Whose parents let them stay up late, whose backyard has a pool, who has a cute older brother? By the time we’re teenagers, girls usually know how to endear themselves to these important people, how to infiltrate the popular cliques, how to appear and act in a certain way, how to say one thing and mean another, and most importantly, how to read people.

By way of example, one of the most essential skills for which the CIA provided training was how to bump a target, that is “run into” someone we might otherwise have no way of meeting. Our instructors told us that we should first monitor the target’s movements and patterns so we could place ourselves in his path. I don’t know a single woman who has not been using this technique for years. In college, my girlfriends and I would memorize the schedule of whatever guy we were “into”at the time and navigate to class by the most circuitous routes possible if it meant there was a chance of running into him.

Next, a good spy has to assess someone as a potential spy. This critical step in the recruitment process requires an ability to listen. A case officer must listen to what the prospective asset has to say, analyze it for content, value, and reliability, and based upon this analysis make a determination as to whether this person might be a likely or even a worthwhile spy. Is this person dissatisfied with his job — most targets, by the way, are men — does he have financial problems, troubles at home, is he an alcoholic, an obsessive gambler, a chronic philanderer, does he have delusions of self-importance, is he willing to take risks? These are all indicators of a person’s likelihood to commit espionage.

Most women have been conditioned from an early age to listen. Just as we will listen patiently when a boyfriend re-lives his high school athletic triumphs or rants against his incompetent boss, we are well trained to sit quietly and hear out a would-be conspirator bragging about the top-secret project he’s involved with at work.

The third phase of spy recruitment, called development, requires an ability to flatter, always excessively and often disingenuously. During the development of a potential asset, the case officer should constantly feed the target’s ego: Of course your boss doesn’t appreciate you and your brilliance. But the U.S. government does; how about coming to work for us? This developmental phase relies largely on social skills. A case officer must take the potential asset out for fancy dinners, compliment him constantly, defer to his opinions and tastes, and once he starts doling out information, buy him little gifts and tokens of appreciation. What woman isn’t better equipped than the average guy to know the best places to go, the right things to say, and the perfect things to buy?

One of the primary advantages of being a female case officer is that rarely is any foreign man going to turn down your invitation to coffee, lunch, or dinner. And that brings me to a primary challenge faced by the female spy. Naturally she can run into trouble when a target misinterprets her intention and becomes romantically intrigued. My mentor at the Farm once confided in me, “I would never want my daughter doing this job.” He went on to explain how, while serving in the Middle East, a female subordinate called him once in the middle of the night. Hysterical, she pleaded with him to come to the hotel where she was meeting a male foreign agent. When he arrived, the case officer was being chased around the bed by a sheik. Another female colleague was the recipient of an impassioned marriage proposal by one of her agents. When she protested that he was already married, the agent assured her that he had checked it out with his first wife who had no objections.

This brings me to a pressing problem in the CIA today: the changing nature of the threats facing the United States. The CIA desperately needs to reevaluate and revamp its training methods in order to contend with the ever-growing terrorist threat. Traditional spy vs. spy tactics developed during the Cold War era, when it was entirely possible to sway defectors from within the ranks of our main rival, the Soviet Union. These tactics are totally inappropriate to combating terrorism. Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are not hanging out on the diplomatic cocktail circuit, the first arena in which CIA spies in training are still instructed and expected to trawl. Quite unlike citizens of the former Eastern block, most members of terrorist groups are not forced participants in their cause. They believe passionately, zealously, and dangerously in what they do. They cannot be swayed by CIA money or case officers’ sweet talk. Quite simply, terrorism is a different kind of threat than communism was.

The CIA needs to develop a new, more effective means of gathering intelligence. CIA men and women need more specialized and far lengthier training. They need to be fluent in languages that until very recently the Agency had pretty much ignored, such as Arabic, Pashto, and Urdu. Case officers, now more than ever, truly need to be persons of the world, well-versed in and familiar with the cultures they are expected to infiltrate.

Most of all, the Agency’s analysts should impress upon policy makers the need to look analytically at the psychology of terrorism. We must develop a long-term approach for defeating it, as opposed to continually applying bandaids to the gaping wound of terroristrelated death and destruction.

The Bush administration has not made the task of infiltrating or combating our enemy any easier by rendering the U.S. increasingly unpopular not only in the Middle East, but now, with a majority of Europeans as well. I would venture to say that pretty much worldwide the U.S. government and, by extension, American people, are at the moment viewed as reckless, shortsighted, and imperialistic — not so much defending our own nation, as offending every other nation.

But let me return specifically to the advantages of being a female spy. In order to bring a recruitment full circle, a case officer must formally enlist the target; that is, get him to provide sensitive information and keep secret his relationship with the CIA. The ability to seal the deal relies on refined powers of manipulation. A case officer’s job is also not done once the agent is recruited. Handling that agent is just as tricky and, again, an occupation very well suited to women. Agents are difficult people. They are risk takers, egomaniacs, idealists, opportunists, persons with delusions of grandeur. They are placing themselves at grave risk.

Dealing with an agent usually means dealing with a stressed-out, difficult person. A maternal instinct will serve a case officer well because most agents are not unlike children. They have all sorts of wants and needs, fears and concerns. It is the case officer’s job to listen and to assuage the agent’s doubts. Most women are by nature
nurturing, not to mention considered unthreatening in many parts of the world. I had one agent for whom I acted like a quasi-therapist. His son was a mediocre student; he and his daughter had a contentious relationship. He was very afraid he was gaining weight. So, in between needling him for information, I would assure him that he didn’t look fat.

One of the most important aspects of agent handling is maintaining “clandestinity.”
Getting caught by the host country’s intelligence service would have been a significant glitch in my career. It could have meant life imprisonment or even death for one of my agents. We had to meet at times and in places where no one would see us, and we had to devise a cover story as to how we knew each other and why we were meeting. Being a woman came in remarkably handy. Viewed from the outside, it would appear that my agent and I were having an affair, which was exactly what I wanted anyone watching us to think. I used to feel sorry for a male colleague who, in case he got caught, would spend hours anguishing over and developing bizarre cover stories to explain what he and his agent were doing in a hotel room together.

Being a case officer comes with an exacting price that is paid by both male and female spies. Sure, I could spot and assess a target and then prey upon his vulnerabilities. I could be a fake. I could sneak around and lie about everything I did, especially when everything I did was justified by the mission, which to me meant patriotism, counterterrorism, regional and global stability.

But ultimately I found that it didn’t make me happy to do these things. The feminine attributes I relied on to be a good case officer were not the ones to which I aspired; I could be a manipulative and cunning shrew but that didn’t mean I wanted to be. Ultimately I realized that more than I wanted to be a good spy, I wanted to be a good person.

Even more important, by the time I left, I felt deeply at odds with the Agency’s direction and mission. After 9/11, the primary charge of the Agency should have been clear: protecting the United States of America and its citizens from the growing threat of international terrorism, as well as predicting and preventing the next wide-scale attack. It seemed to me, and I would venture to say, to many of my colleagues, that the Agency was being almost imperceptibly co-opted in support of certain political ends. I was neither the first nor the last among my group of fellow trainees to resign. In no small part, our leaving was due to our shared disillusionment with an organization that we once had revered.

Since I resigned and have had my cover lifted, people often ask me whether I have any regrets. I know that I’m a much happier and more honest person now that I am not a spy. I suppose my only regret would be that I did not have the resolve to stay with the organization and try to address its problems from within. I still wonder about the future of women at the Agency, just as I wonder about the Agency itself. Recently, the CIA has seemed to me like a ship with no one at the helm. In the year since I resigned, I’ve watched our leadership take the fall for what turned out to be a misguided war and an illconceived plan for recovery from that war. I have felt disheartened both as a former employee and also as a private citizen by the ways in which the Agency has been used as a political tool, thereby failing the American public—the very people whose charter it is to protect and inform. The ultimate manipulator has become the ultimate manipulatee. I often wonder what course the Agency would follow were more of its female employees in management or leadership positions. I cannot help but consider that stagnancy at
the CIA has resulted, in part, from the still very much in place good ole boy network that pervades at Langley. Someone needs to look at the Agency with an exacting and critical eye.


Q: Was there a profile that was developed for recruiting women into the agency?

A: In my group of trainees fifty percent were women, and we were a very diverse group. So, if the CIA had one single personality element in mind, it wasn’t clear to me because we were from all different backgrounds. Of course some women were more successful than others, just as some men were more successful than others. I think the main thing the Agency does look for is an ability to adapt; to be a bit of a chameleon. As a spy, you are going out and trying to meet people and trying to get them to like you. That said, there are many very unlikable characters at the CIA, and some of them are very good case officers. People have different tactics for how they go about recruiting people. I always wanted to recruit someone who really wanted to work for us, who really believed that the American way was the best way, and who wanted to enact change in whatever way they could.

Q: Given the general dislike of Americans by most countries around the world, do you think that we can recruit Muslim women to help us?

A: I think it’s been an untapped target pool to a certain extent. The Agency has been in a constant crisis mode since September 11th, dealing with Afghanistan and then with the war in Iraq. Overtaxed, it probably hasn’t had much time to look analytically and say, ‘Where are some targets that we haven’t tapped?’ The pool of Muslim women is a perfect example, and also, it is another target group that female case officers could effectively pursue. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, for a female case officer to even think about infiltrating a terrorist or extremist group. But all of these men have a wife, or sometimes many wives, and certainly not all of them are perfectly happy.

Q: It appears that your CIA career was relatively short. Is this typical? How long are typical CIA careers? If you cut your career short because of a matter of political conscience, is that kind of resignation more common in the CIA than in the armed forces?

A: Yes, to answer your last question first. The Agency attracts a somewhat different type of person from those the military attracts. Agency people, similar to their assets, are difficult people; people who want to speak their mind. It’s hard to be in an organization where you are so controlled. The brevity of my career is unfortunately very common. At the Agency there’s a joke about someone being “on the five-year plan,” which means they spend five years in the Agency and then leave. Why do these mostly bright, motivated people,with a real sense of patriotism when they go into the Agency, become disillusionedand leave? The Agency will always say that it’s because salaries are not competitive with the private sector. I don’t think that’s true. Nobody goes into the CIA because they want to make a lot of money.

Q: Why do you think we had a failure of intelligence both with 9/11 and also in Iraq as regards weapons of mass destruction?

A: On September 11th I was still an Agency officer. I was profoundly affected by that because I felt that the organization had failed the American public in a devastating way. At that time I felt a renewed commitment to my job. One of the reasons I left the Agency is that despite this renewed commitment, I kept hitting a brick wall. I was serving overseas and a manager said to me, “You’ve done well; your tour is almost over; you don’t really have to worry so much about making a good impression on headquarters.” Well, I wasn’t really interested in making a good impression on headquarters, and I don’t think anybody in the American public cares what impression I make on headquarters. Our job was to really start going after these terrorist groups. The fact that that didn’t start happening immediately was frustrating to me.

Some things have changed at the Agency that perhaps might have prevented something like September 11th; there’s much closer coordination now between the CIA and the FBI, which we needed for a long time. That possibly could have prevented September 11th. With the weapons of mass destruction… I have tremendous faith in Agency analysts. Unlike the operations people, the analysts are never sleazy. They’re always generally really nice, principled people. I couldn’t
understand why there was such a disconnect between what I was hearing from my friends who were analysts, and what I was reading in the paper and hearing on television. My analyst friends were saying, “We don’t really have evidence of weapons of mass destruction; we don’t have evidence of a link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein or Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.” And then I would hear something different on TV or read something different in the paper. So, either the Agency was giving the administration faulty intelligence, or the administration was manipulating the intelligence and misleading the American public. Either one of those scenarios is totally unacceptable, and in either one the CIA is to blame.

Q. Karl Deutsch used to say that our greatest weakness as a country was that we never kept the pipeline full. After World War II, every woman who was a graduate student and didn’t want to teach could get a job in intelligence. Then we let up—especially on the Middle East. Should we be constantly recruiting?

A: Yes. I think we need to be constantly recruiting, looking toward the future, and doing what the CIA is supposed to do: predicting what’s going to happen. Somehow we missed the demise of the Soviet Union — that was a big one. We should be looking ahead to try to determine what the threats are going to be 10, 20, 50 years down the line, and what languages we will need. We need to avoid the situation we have now — scrabbling to find people who might have the language capabilities but who don’t have any of the other attributes that are required to be a good case officer.

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