People/Web Search Calendars UVA Maps A-Z Index spacer University of Virginia Home Page
Staff Contacts TV News Home View All Archives Archives by Speaker
   
LINDSAY MORAN KEGLEY
Lindsay Moran Kegley
Former Case Officer, Central Intelligence Agency
"Women in the CIA: Problems and Prospects"

I've set out to prepare some comments about "Women at the CIA: Problems and Prospects," that in these somewhat what I would call troubled times for the Agency, the challenges met by its female officers are not radically different from those faced by their male colleagues. I want to take about some of those challenges or problems later, but I want to spend the bulk of my time, which I’ll limit in order to give people to ask questions, addressing not so much prospects as realities or 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 at a place like this? I happened to be reloading an AK 47 at the time, not an unreasonable question I thought. I was on the verge of completing two months of intensive paramilitary training which at that time was required of all clandestine service trainees. About year earlier when I had told my immediate family that I was going to work at the Central Intelligence Agency they were equally as baffled by my choice. A spy my mother said. 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 meanwhile were concerned for another reason. The government is a man’s world, my father said. You’ll never get ahead and my brother sent me an article about sexual discrimination at the CIA and he asked me, are you sure this is what you want to do?
I was pretty determined. During adolescent and into college I had 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. I kind of felt like I had spent my entire life in preparation to be a spy, and I’ll never forget the first time I walked through the doors of headquarters. I stopped to stare at this wall which is covered with row upon row of gold stars. Each star commemorates an intelligence officer who has 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 into the Directorate of Operations, or the DO, which is the clandestine branch of the Agency, I began to worry that maybe my family had been right. We heard stories about female employees who had fallen prey to duplicitous foreign men and who had spilled state secrets. Naturally, these women’s careers ended in disgrace.

The Agency’s message seemed clear to me--women were more susceptible to flattery and deception. Women presented a greater security risk. Women were weak. This was, and perhaps still is, an attitude that pervades Agency history no matter that the most devastating CIA moles have been men. Notwithstanding these obvious prejudices I began training and I have to say I found myself almost immediately relieved to discover that as a woman I would not be at a disadvantage at all. In fact, to the contrary. Why is that? The job of 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 information, what we call intelligence, to his CIA case officer, usually in exchange for money.

Like most women, I had been spotting, assessing, developing and recruiting people long before I joined the CIA. In fact, I and a lot of the other women 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 a secret. I certainly knew, and my parents would have attested to this, how to lie and if caught, how to follow the DO mantra--deny, deny, deny. When I started at the Agency in the 1990s, George Tenant, the then popular CIA Director had launched a hiring spree intended to build up the clandestine service. The DO began actively recruiting promising young men and to an even greater extent, promising young women. In my group of trainees, close to 50% were women and from the onset, the women thrived, no matter the Agency’s reputation as a bastion of good old boys.

The skills that many of the male trainees had to learn and practice came naturally to us. Let me elaborate on that. The keystone to any and every successful recruitment is at 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 toward the United States and his vulnerabilities, which later we would exploit in trying to convince this person to become a spy. Quite simply, 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 or 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 are teenagers, girls usually know what is necessary to endear ourselves 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 us training was how to bump a target, someone we might otherwise have no way of meeting. The first step we were told is to monitor the target’s movements and patterns so you can place yourself in his path. Well, 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.
Assessing someone as a potential spy, the next and no less 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 base upon this analysis, make a determination as to whether this person would be a likely or even a worthwhile spy. Is the 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 philander? Does he have delusions of self-importance? Is he willing to take risks? These, incidentally, are all indicators of a persons’ likelihood to commit espionage.

Women have been conditioned from an early age to listen. Just as we will listen patiently when a boyfriend relives 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, which brings me to the primary challenge or problem faced by the female spy. Naturally, she can run into trouble when a target misinterpret her intentions and becomes romantically intrigued. My mentor at the farm, a man, 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 room where she was meeting a male agent. When he arrived, the female 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.

Women serving in the Middle East where indeed our most important operations take place these days need be cognizant of the fact that they’re not in Kansas any more. Female case officers who lack the flexibility to adapt, particularly to the more often than not chauvinistic societies in which they’re expected to serve, usually careen as suicide bombers into their own careers.

CIA women who maintain a rigid sense of feministic entitlement do themselves and the Agency no favors. This brings me to a problem I would like to address, but it’s one that affects both male and female spies. The CIA desperately needs to reevaluate and revamp its training method in order to contend with the ever-growing terrorist threat. The traditional spy versus spy tactics which were appropriate to the Cold War era when the possibility of swaying defectors from within the ranks of our main enemies, at that time, the Soviet Union--was very real and attainable, are totally inappropriate to combatting terrorism. Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are by no means hanging out on the diplomatic cocktail circuit, the first arena in which CIA spies in training are still instructed and expected to troll.

Most members of terrorist groups quite unlike citizens of the former eastern bloc are not forced participants in their cause. They believe passionately, zealously, dangerously in what they do. They cannot be swayed with either CIA money or traditional case officer sweet talk. Quite simply, terrorism is a different kind of threat than communism was and the CIA needs to face up to that fact and develop a suitable or at least a more effective means of gathering intelligence. CIA men and women need more specialized training and far lengthier training. They need to be fluent in languages that until very recently the Agency had pretty much ignored--Arabic, Pashtu, Urdu, etc. Case officers now more than ever truly need to be persons of the world, well versed in and familiar with the cultures that they are expected to infiltrate. Most of all, the Agency, and here I’m talking about our analysts, should impress upon policy makers the need to look analytically at the psychology of terrorism so that we might come up with a long-term approach for defeating it as opposed to continually applying bandaids to the gaping wound of terrorist-related death and destruction.

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

But let me return briefly to the specific advantages of being a female spy. In order to bring a recruitment full cycle, a case officer must formally enlist the target. That is, get him to agree to provide sensitive information and to keep secret his relationship with the CIA. The ability to seal the deal, or in Agency speak, get a scalp, relies on refined powers of manipulation. I think it’s safe to say that over the ages women have earned their reputation as seasoned manipulators.
A case officer’s job is also not done once the agent is recruited. Handling an 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 one stressed out, difficult person. A maternal instinct will serve a case officer well because most agents are not unlike children. They have all sort of wants and needs, fears and concerns. It’s the case officer’s job to listen and to assuage the agent’s doubts.

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 that he was gaining weight. So in between needling him for information, I would assure him that he did not 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 meant a significant glitch in my career, but it could have meant life imprisonment or even death for one of my agents. We had to meet at times and in places when and 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 would spend hours anguishing over and concocting bizarre cover stories to explain should he get caught what he and his agent were doing in a motel room together.

As I alluded to previously, the job of being a case officer does not come without an exacting price, but it’s one paid by both male and female spies. In my case, 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, counterterroism, regional and global stability, but ultimately I found 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. More important than that, however, by the time I left, I felt deeply at odds with or disconnected from whatever was supposed to be the Agency’s mission.
After 9/11, the primary charge of the CIA 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, male and female alike, that the Agency was being almost imperceptibly coopted in support of certain political ends. I was neither the first nor the last among my group of fellow trainees to resign and in no small part due to our shared disillusionment within an organization than from the outside looking in, we once had revered. Since I resigned and had my cover lifted, people often asked me--do you have any regrets? I know that I’m a much happier and of course more honest person now that I’m no longer a spy. I suppose my only regret would be that I did not have the resolve to stay with the organization and try to change what I saw as its problems from within. Ultimately I didn’t want to spend my life swimming upstream which I would have felt compelled to do at the Agency, not just as a woman but as a conscientious officer.

I still wonder about the future of women at the Agency, just as I worry about the future of the Agency itself. Recently the CIA has seemed to me like a ship with no one at the helm. This is a dangerous state to be in on the turbulent and treacherous waters created by international terrorism. In the year since I’ve resigned, I’ve watched our leadership take the fall for what turned out to be a misguided war and an ill-conceived plan for recovery from the 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 to 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 to consider that stagnancy at the CIA has resulted in part from the still very-much-in-place good old boy network that pervades at Langley. Someone needs to look at the Agency with an exacting and critical eye. I think any man, to include my own husband, who is somewhere here today, might agree that when it comes to being critical, particularly of men, or, in this case, a male-dominated institution such as the CIA, women would know how to do it relentlessly and right. And with that, I’d like to open it up to any questions anyone has.

Question: I want to ask you how it is different for a female agent dealing with a Muslim as opposed to other groups of people?

Kegley: That’s a really good question. I had agents that were Muslim men. In my particular case, they happened to be people who were very supportive of the United States at that time and very empathetic toward Americans, so I didn’t have any problems in that respect whereas I think certainly today many of the male and female case officers who are targeting the Muslims that we need to target who have some connection to terrorist groups will face the problem that they don’t like Americans. That’s a huge problem and one that’s not as easily overcome.
As a female officer, it was difficult I think to establish parameters, not just with Muslim men but with men who are from different parts of the world whereas it’s very easy I think in an American work setting to say that comment’s not acceptable or that’s not acceptable behavior, it’s harder to do when you’re on someone else’s soil and trying to be respectful of their traditions. I never had a situation spiral as I alluded to some of the other women. I never had a situation spiral downward into anything that was either dangerous or uncomfortable and I think particularly I was serving in the Balkans. A lot of the men there, almost a way of posturing would feel that they should hit on you, but they weren’t really interested. They just were kind of baffled as to why you were interested in talking to them. I always found it easier once I got to the point in a relationship where I could break cover and say, look, I work for the CIA. This is why I’m interested in you. Usually they knew that before I got to actually saying it, but it’s challenging and you have to walk a fine line and I think that it’s not-- There are some women who work at the CIA who find that position very uncomfortable and have a hard time dealing with it.

Question: We had Joseph Wilson here not too long ago who gave a very interesting talk and a lot of discussion, of course, about his wife being outed and I’d be interested in your comments about what implications that had for the CIA that having happened and where you think the investigation may go?

Kegley: I think everyone at the Agency and I still, of course, have many friends who are there felt one of two things. On the one hand, most people who knew Valerie Plame knew that at that point her life as a covert officer was over for the most part before her name was revealed, so how it would impact her career at the Agency was not so much an issue. That said, as a matter of principle, it could’ve been an issue had she still been really involved in covert operations, then indeed, she would have been placed at danger and also to ever expose someone’s name, someone who’s a covert officer, to expose their name is an injustice under any circumstances. To do so for political reasons is just egregious and I think that a lot of us either at the Agency or formerly at the Agency feel, felt and feel, that indeed someone should be held accountable for that. If I were to get up here and say let me give you the names of some of my former colleagues, I would be held accountable for that. If there was a leak from the White House, then indeed someone needs to be held accountable for that, so again, it’s not so much that her career was directly affected, but the fact that it could’ve been, someone needs to answer to that.

Question: It sounds like forming a relation with an agent broadly could be called a kind of seduction.

Kegley: Exactly.

Question: Was there a profile that was developed for recruiting women into the Agency? Can you comment on that?

Kegley: It’s interesting. In my group of trainees, as I said, 50% of us were women and we were a very diverse group, so if they had one single personality element in mind, it wasn’t clear to me because we were from all different backgrounds and, of course, some women were more successful than others just as some men were more successful than others. I think the main thing that the Agency does look for and needs to look for is an ability to adapt, to be a bit of a chameleon, and interpersonal skills for both men and women, because what you’re doing is going out and trying to meet people and trying to get them to like you. That said, there’s a lot of very unlikable characters at the CIA and so of them are very good case officers and people have different tactics for how they go about recruiting people.
For me, I always wanted to recruit someone who really wanted to work for us, who really believed the American way was the best way and who wanted to enact change in whatever way they could. You don’t always get recruitment like that. A lot of people are just out for the money. They know the CIA is paying to get information and they’re willing to work for the CIA to make money and I would say in large part that’s probably what a majority of our recruitment are.

Question: Given the general dislike of Americans by most countries around the world, do you think that Muslim women would have the possibility of being recruited into the Agency because of certain arguments you might make about, well, relatively speaking, women have many more liberties in this country and so it might be their way to escape out of the situation they’re in. Do you think that’s possible?

Kegley: Right now, it seems like the Agency has been in a constant crisis mode since September 11th dealing with Afghanistan and then with the war in Iraq. The Agency is over-taxed and probably doesn’t have as much time as it should to look analytically and say, well, where are some targets that we haven’t tapped and I think the pool of Muslim women is a perfect example and also another target pool that female case officers could go after. I think it would be, and is, very difficult for a female case officer to even think about infiltrating a terrorist or extremist group. It’s really somewhat unrealistic. That said, all of these men have a wife or sometimes many wives, and certainly not all of them are perfectly happy and that’s the kind of I think arena I’m talking about when I say to get outside of the diplomatic cocktail circuit to perhaps have female case officers working that arena to try to find targets.

Question: I think it’s wonderful that you’re speaking out like you are and I was just wondering if you’ve experienced any professional or political repercussions for doing what you’re doing and taking the stand that you are?

Kegley: I’ve had different experiences. I think, for instance, the first time I sort of spoke about the Agency--not really spoke but wrote about the Agency when I wrote an article for Washingtonian which I did have cleared with the Agency, I found out sort of through the grapevine that a lot of people in my former office were appalled and I hadn’t revealed anything classified. It was just this sort of going outside of the family and breaking the silence. You’re not supposed to talk which I think the Agency does itself a disservice by not listening or allowing former officers to talk and then kind of using that information to, as I said previously, to look at itself more critically.

I also have had a tremendous amount of support. I got a bunch of e-mails after my article was published from other women who had resigned from the Agency telling me their experiences and how they were glad that I had articulated something that they had thought themselves, so that’s been nice, and I will give the Agency credit. In the process of writing the book that I’m writing which is supposed to be the light side of the dark side, it’s not intended to be very critical of the Agency--but the prepublication review board which is made up of both people outside the Agency and former Agency officers has been pretty understanding and expedient about getting feedback to me and I have felt like fair in what they’ve asked me to take out of my manuscript, so that has been surprising and nice.

Maintained by Anna Van Clief
Last Modified:
Copyright 2003 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia