The Central Intelligence Agency is, by the very nature of its mission, an opaque and intentionally misunderstood organization. To an outsider, of which I am now one, the Agency’s silence is both perplexing and infuriating. As a former officer, I can tell you that its by design, and CIA employees labor silently, and often thanklessly, largely on behalf of the President of the United States and his senior staff. As a result of it, few will ever know the critical role that women, especially, have played in America’s CIA-led response to the attacks in 2001. There are 87 stars on the Memorial Wall at CIA headquarters, each representing an officer who has fallen in the line of duty. To see the Memorial Wall is a sobering event; to see a new star being carved into the Wall is both moving and painful. Some of these stars represent women who have sacrificed their life for a mission equally alongside men doing the same jobs.
My career began as an analyst in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September and later transitioned to the National Clandestine Service, where the spies work. As an analyst, I had the rare opportunity to work with some unbelievably smart and perceptive people, men and women who can discern pertinent pieces of information in volumes of data and make sense of them in a clear and concise manner, working at speeds and under pressures that few others likely experience. Given the realities of intelligence collection, analysis is (and likely will continue to be) far more an art than a science. As my career transitioned from an analyst to a Targeting Officer following Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, my career path was full of unanticipated and unimaginable possibilities.
The women I met along the way were exactly as Peter Bergen described in his new book, Manhunt, “They seem to have an exceptional knack for detail, for seeing patterns and understanding relationships“. There were a handful of us in the Targeting position at the time, there was no formal training, but there was a methodology inherent in our work that we shared amongst ourselves. In my experience, the leadership of women in Targeting roles cultivated patience, attention to detail and a willingness to wait for a pay off. The pace is grueling and can take a toll mentally and physically. The tidbits of information aren’t the highly classified results, it’s the analysis and the work that goes into translating the meaning of that disparate information.
As a manager in the Targeting organization, our action arm was quite often the Special Forces teams and the CIA’s targeting teams were set up to meet their unique requirements for ‘high value, actionable’ intelligence. Our targeting work focused on compiling “intelligence” collected holistically to create “targeting packages” against specific individuals and organizations vs whack-a-mole targeting. That is in no way meant to degrade the military personnel that were charged with carrying it out, but it was a strategy destined for failure. Unlike previous wars, traditional tactical battlefield intelligence wasn’t always actionable, intel had to be rooted out from multiple sources and pieced together. In fact, without understanding the over-arching picture of Zarqawi’s group, traditional military targeting would fall short by misunderstanding the role of an individual within the group.
One thread of intelligence can be miles long before it becomes clear whether or not it can be useful for the big picture. When I read about claims of responsibility for tracking any terrorist, I cringe. I know from my own experience, it took years of analysis, human intelligence, technical collection, and working with foreign intelligence services to paint the picture of Zarqawi and his inner circle. Rarely does intelligence come to light after one conversation, one piece of technical collection or one interrogation. Crumbs are dropped throughout the intelligence collection process and Targeting Officers, who understand the modus operandi of the group, piece them together.
Having been out of the game for three years, I still wake up every morning a news junkie, looking for little nuggets of information that might be a precursor to something bigger. During my tenure, I watched ‘Meet the Press’ religiously every Sunday, perception was reality before the Iraq war for the public and Administration. I would sit in front of the TV and yell at guests when they were spinning the intelligence to their flavor and applauding Tim Russert when he caught them. It was my version of sports. The myriad of hours intensely focused on one issue makes for a slightly manic lifestyle. When I wasn’t physically in the office, I was checking the news, waiting for my cell phone to ring asking me to come in because Zarqawi’s group had yet again set off another car bomb. It’s hard to not take your work home when you feel responsible for him still not being caught and killing innocent people. It takes a long time to step back from that level of intensity even after leaving the Agency. I miss my job at the Agency, regardless of the factors that made me leave. My identity has been shaped by this job, not because I can say I worked at the CIA, but because I understand the fragility and strength of our National Security process.