Espionage is a Man’s World: Sex, Lies, and the CIA

The people of any organization are what define it. CIA is no different. When empowered, capable officers recognize problems and what needs to be done to solve them without a bureaucratic panel or regulation to guide them.

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[ Photo: John Makely / NBC News ]


A) If you are applying to CIA because you hope you’ll be a sex object, please withdraw your application. B) If you’ve thought about applying to CIA but hesitate because you fear you’ll be a sex object, read further. C) If you’re still on the inside, fix the promotion system first, which will address a myriad of other problems, to include sexual harassment. Future officers are depending on you.

The depths of depravity surfaced last month in the form of this headline and story from The Daily Beast, “Ex-Spy Accused of Putting CIA Hopeful through Sordid Secret Sex Training.” For any young person considering a career with CIA: there is no CIA training that involves any form of sexual activity, to include: flirting, seduction, harassment, assault, or rape. This is something featured only in spy movies and a few other countries’ spy services, not CIA curriculum.

Given the extensive background checks and continual vetting, CIA should have a near-zero statistic of sexual assault from officers within CIA’s own ranks, current or former. But even with a rigorous hiring and vetting process, character isn’t always easily judged. Over time, some individuals are shaped by the aura of secrecy and become the worst version of themselves. As Congress and CIA take steps to stop these bad actors from within, CIA must do more to address a general lack of accountability that allows this behavior to take root. In addition, one sexual harassment-related challenge that is less discussed but just as prolific is how CIA prepares its officers for ambiguous situations they face while trying to recruit foreign sources abroad.

Espionage traditionally has been a man’s world and it’s exactly for that reason that women CIA field officers are so effective and a critical part of the CIA workforce. CIA sources predominantly are male because men still hold most positions of political, military, and economic power in adversarial countries, as well as in non-state groups such as terrorist organizations. (A “source” is an individual who provides information or “intelligence” on foreign countries or groups, also known as an “asset” or “spy.”)

Female CIA officers are force multipliers in such a dynamic because we’re highly perceptive of changing moods, motivations, and vulnerabilities of others. As the traditionally smaller and more vulnerable gender, girls grow up evaluating social situations and people they meet, especially men, for potential threats. Women arrive at CIA with those skills – a developed ability to read people and situations. Further, most female CIA officers are disarming. We can walk into almost any location and strike up a non-alerting conversation. Building empathy and trust comes easier to us and most male sources are responsive to those traits. Moreover, men are also often eager to impress women and will go to great lengths to do so, to include providing secrets.

Pop culture often portrays the lifestyle of CIA field officers in a way that suggests they use sex to recruit sources. The truth is that a truly professional intelligence organization does not lower itself to using sex or coercion, especially as both only create more vulnerabilities, complications, and resentment for a would-be source. Further, romantic relationships can be fraught with complexity. And complexity creates a higher degree of risk that the source will act out in ways that ultimately lead to his (or sometimes, her) discovery. CIA’s sacred duty is to keep its sources undiscovered and, therefore, safe. Aside from this being the ethical thing to do, a service that protects its sources is a service that senior Kremlin officials volunteer to spy for and a service that has a deep and continual well of secret information.

Shared Human Desires

The heart often rules the head. The core job of a CIA case officer is to leverage the fundamental aspects of human nature and to seduce, but not in the way an outsider might think. CIA officers recruit a source with the source’s own hopes, whether it is to change the despotic nature of their government, to create better opportunities for their children, or to seek revenge for a lack of promotion or some other perceived sleight. Additionally, there is an element of adventure in an illicit, secret relationship that makes it doubly attractive.

For men from a culture where it is taboo to meet with a female alone outside of family members, it is a thrilling twist on traditional power dynamics to meet with a woman who speaks with the power of the U.S Government behind her, as well as with cool-headed self-confidence. This can create a potent paradox between stereotypes and reality, which brings added intrigue to make the relationship even more attractive or unique to a source, even when it has no physical element.

Sex as an Undercurrent

For some sources, physical desire may reside in the background of their minds. But this is the unspoken reality in many relationships, not just with CIA sources and their CIA handlers, because it is human nature.

Due to the undercurrent of gender and power dynamics, some of these relationships can be challenging, especially in the beginning. CIA does not teach its female officers who deploy overseas and meet a range of male targets in back alleys, remote parts of war zones, and in hotel rooms alone how to handle sexual advances from sources. I had to develop my own mechanisms for dealing with flirtatious and periodically more aggressive advances.

Interview with SpyTalk: Sex, Lies and Women at the CIA

In most cases, I was able to deflect and establish boundaries while allowing the man to save face. In almost every case, we developed a genuine like and respect for each other. I looked forward to our meetings, and in any other circumstance, would have characterized some of these sources as good friends. Out of a multitude of encounters, I was fortunate that only once did I feel the sexual assault threat was so great that I sent a male case officer to future meetings in my stead.

Grappling with how to deal with unwelcome male advances isn’t new to most women reading this essay. Women begin to learn from an early age that they must find a way to deflect this behavior while also protecting men’s egos. We carry guilt when our efforts fail, and we have to decide on how and whether to handle increasingly forward encounters ourselves, entrust colleagues for support, or if particularly egregious, leave a job or opportunity we love because of behavior we hate.

CIA has relied on the inherent gut responses female officers have upon starting their careers at CIA and skills they individually develop over time, when it should be providing a better set of tools for all its field officers on how to de-escalate these situations. I viewed it as a personal responsibility to inform new, female trainees of what they might face and shared with them that many sources will make sexual advances. We can leverage that to our advantage, but we must be incredibly careful not to encourage the behavior, which would lead to increased advances, and potentially the threat of violence.

A natural inclination of women is to stay quiet and divert attention when such advances occur, and that’s what I often did. I would appear to ignore it with a redirection of the conversation elsewhere, while later raising a story about my “husband” or “child,” even when I didn’t have one. I would go into the great relationship I had with my “brother” or “father” and how this individual reminded me of him. Usually this was enough. It was the indirect signal the man needed. If more emphasis was required, I would find a reason to cite my position as “a U.S. Government official” and “direct representative of the U.S. Government who spoke with the authority of the U.S. Government” and refer to myself and the source as “professionals.” Every now and then, we’d have to repeat the conversation, but usually this held advances at bay.

When Values Collide

In addition to navigating these situations, female officers have to be careful how they characterize them in official documentation containing the details of meetings to a larger CIA audience for posterity and review. I tried to document these encounters in ways that wouldn’t draw the concern of senior male colleagues. Otherwise, many would have responded by removing opportunities, thinking they were genuinely protecting me from a situation I couldn’t handle. This would limit career advancement unnecessarily.

Values eventually collide. Sometimes we must let certain things slide in order to achieve a greater good. But knowing what to let slide, what to never compromise on, and when to take a stand is inherently hard.

CIA generally must meet the world as it is, not as we wish it were. CIA field officers should not be social justice warriors in conducting recruitment operations, and CIA must acknowledge that it is appropriate at times to send one officer over another due to a myriad of characteristics, to include gender. This is difficult to stomach in a US-centric human resources mindset. CIA’s mission is not to change the social stances of its sources, but to collect information so policymakers can make better decisions and protect Americans.

Though my job wasn’t to try and reform the world’s maligned attitudes toward women and minorities, that occasionally was the result. After years of handling male sources, some told me stories about how they were more open-minded about future opportunities for their daughters based on our deep discussions about our lives and hopes for the future.

Too many in the US have lost a willingness to sit down and have hard conversations across the political and cultural spectrum. We jump to dismissing others for their views rather than taking the time to offer alternative ways of thinking and acting. We’ve become too quick to claim victim status. It’s the sense that there no longer can be shades of gray; you must either validate my feelings or you’re wrong. Put simply, we’ve lost the art of engagement and persuasion, an art that CIA case officers almost exclusively rely on to recruit sources.

Yet, endless engagement isn’t always the answer either; sometimes we must seek peace through strength and that means not engaging until certain conditions are met. There also are deadly enemies out there who would kill at the first opportunity; dialogue is not and will never be an option with them.

When to Fight vs When to Yield

This challenge of knowing when to fight and when to yield, to include when standing up for and living by values when they collide, isn’t easy. Unfortunately, some CIA senior officers fail to see the nuance and bow to a foreign government liaison service’s worldviews unnecessarily, for example, by giving into demands that CIA only send male officers to meet with them. Giving into such demands only decreases CIA’s leverage in the long-run, whereas an appropriately timed and selected “stand” can serve to increase respect, leverage, and power. Such officers do not actually understand power dynamics and instead are looking for confirmation of their own beliefs that women can’t handle men as well as men can. They fail CIA’s mission and our American values at the same time.

The more legitimate questions arise on when it is appropriate to send a male vs female officer to meet an individual source. Recruiting or handling a vital source can lead to major career advancement. I tried to send the best-matched officer based on cultural competency, language capabilities, and/or the sensitivity of the source and the ability of the officer to plan thoroughly without making mistakes. In my experience, a female officer often has a small advantage in many situations due to all the reasons already discussed. But sometimes the situation demands that CIA send someone who can blend in better to the surroundings or better cater to the worldview of a specific target. Sometimes this simply meant sending a man, even if he had equal or perhaps less skills than a female colleague.

The Headquarters Situation

Because female officers already face a number of sexist challenges, they are fearful of any sort of formality around issues of gender in foreign operations. It risks the implication that women aren’t up for handling difficult cases, or that they need to be coddled in some way. Supportive male CIA officers equally don’t want to raise it for fear of being labeled sexist.

Further, risk aversion at CIA is growing, and the removal of all risk is fundamentally at odds with CIA’s mission. CIA field operations are already too reliant on decision by committee, too often deferring to Headquarters-based panels comprised of individuals who are far removed from events on the ground and lack true accountability. In a “decision by committee system,” if everyone decides, then nobody is to blame for a failure, yet everyone can share in a success.

Proximity to power matters. Those who sit at CIA Headquarters are in closer proximity to senior leadership and one of their roles is to brief successes in the field, which is powerful currency for career advancement. If not corrected, it is the nature of a bureaucracy to trend towards failure-avoiding behavior rather than success-seeking behavior. If left unchecked, a bureaucracy will begin to define success as the lack of failure or by marginal gains that don’t really matter. This leads to the cascading effect of risk aversion. For these reasons, creating a “Headquarters panel” or any sort of “Headquarters approval process” – a typical, reflexive bureaucratic response – would only diffuse accountability further, create more risk aversion, and not address the challenge. 

And yet, female officers need support.

What is To Be Done?

There is a relatively easy and tactical step CIA can take to help officers deal with sexual advances and violent situations they face when putting their lives on the line to gather critical foreign intelligence. CIA leadership should establish a series of discussions as part of field training courses led by female officers that talk through these various scenarios and potential means of de-escalation. The Directorate of Operations (DO) should also establish a group of referents to provide officers, male or female, suggestions for how to navigate these kinds of tenuous situations. These referents can serve as a pool of officers whose job it is to mentor and advise without affecting operational decision-making.

While it is inevitable that officers will deal with harassment in the field from foreign sources, they should not have to sustain abuse at home and from within. To deal with this, as well as with officers who think the solution to harassment by foreign sources is to simply send more men in place of women, is to establish more accountability through a reformed promotion system. Most importantly, CIA must stop promoting mediocrity. CIA leadership must recognize just how ineffective the current promotion system is and that sexual harassment in the ranks is one of the second-order effects of allowing mediocre to downright bad leaders and managers achieve positions of power.

Until this is addressed, fertile ground remains for sexual harassment, risk aversion, and its opposite – unbridled and ill-considered operations – to take hold. If CIA wishes to remain relevant as the world’s pre-eminent spy organization, it must move beyond tackling symptoms to addressing the underlying problem.

If it does not address this underlying promotion of mediocrity, newly-established offices and task forces will fail to stop the behavior. An office doesn’t stop bad behavior. Only good people willing to make hard decisions, and empowered to do so, can.

The people of any organization are what define it. CIA is no different. When empowered, capable officers recognize problems and what needs to be done to solve them without a bureaucratic panel or regulation to guide them. They can operate amid ambiguity and chaos. CIA must enable these capable officers if it wishes to maintain its relevance in an ever-changing world riddled with ethical, technological, and economic challenges.

Laura Thomas

Laura Thomas is the Chief of Staff and Strategic Initiatives at quantum technology and manufacturing company, Infleqtion. Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) case officer and Chief of Base. Visit her website at www.lauraethomas.com

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