CIA's biggest secret is that the best guys are women - former agent Lindsay Moran
Lindsay Moran worked as a CIA agent, recruiting informants and observing the increasing acceptance of torture.
It is hard to think of a film that courted more controversy this year than Zero Dark Thirty.
The story of the real-life female CIA agent who spends a decade hunting down Osama Bin Laden was boycotted by a member of the Oscars judging panel, and its director Kathryn Bigelow accused of "normalising" torture.
The film also made in excess of $100 million, and was praised by critics worldwide for its ability to weave the exhausting 10 year search into a watchable whole, with the redheaded Maya (Jessica Chastain) pale and coolly focused at its centre.
For Lindsay Moran, former spy and vocal critic of the Bush-era CIA, a six-year career at the agency began in 1998, three years before Zero Dark Thirty begins.
Speaking on the phone from Washington DC, where she now lives with her husband and children, Moran talks with obvious excitement as she recalls learning the skills of an "operations agent" at "The Farm", the CIA's training facility rumoured to be based in Virginia.
She quickly learnt that a spy had to make friends easily, and with people for whom she might have little respect.
"It came easier to the women," she says. "In fact, the CIA’s biggest secret is that the best guys are women".
A woman's touch
Moran argues that among her cohort, half of whom were female, it was the women who adapted more easily to deploying a range of techniques for extracting information.
"You have to put aside your ego and whatever your own prejudices are and pretend to like that person" she says, adding that men struggled with this aspect of the programme.
Her sources in Macedonia and Iraq needed to feel comfortable and happy in her company, even as they gave away secrets that could endanger their lives and those of their families.
"You’re not going out and assassinating people and torturing them, you’re trying to make friends with people".
And she is not the only one to believe that women, often conditioned from birth to "be nice" and make men feel good about themselves, make ideal spies.
Dr Michael Scheuer, the author of Imperial Hubris whose 22-year career at the CIA included spells as a senior advisor to the Osama Bin Laden department and chief of the cheery-sounding "Sunni Militant Unit", told Moran: "If I could have had a sign on my door that said 'no men need apply', I would," she claims.
He "strongly felt" women were better at getting their work done and seeing "nuances in relationships", an opinion shared by Tamir Pardo, current Director of the Mossad, Israel's equivalent of MI6, and no slouch himself when it comes to collecting intelligence.
"Women are gifted at deciphering situations," he told a US magazine last year, and superior in "suppressing their ego in order to attain the goal".
But anyone who decides to join the CIA as a spy must have some sort of ego, surely?
"I’m the first to admit that I was attracted to the CIA because of the intrigue and glamour of being a spy," Moran concedes.
"Men tend to think they have to be really macho in order to operate in this world but it’s more like you have to be a chameleon."
Don't become a spy if you want glory
But that doesn't mean it was easy living a double life.
"One of the hardest things about being an undercover officer is you can’t tell anyone what you're doing.
"We’re told: 'make yourself sound as boring as possible'."
Moran recalls attending a reunion at Harvard, surrounded by wildly successful peers, and having to say convincingly she was working as a bureaucrat in a "dead-end" job. It was a moment when, she realised, "You’re not going to get any glory."
By 2002, after two years in Macedonia, Moran was back at CIA headquarters, working on the Iraq desk.
Meanwhile, men and women like the character of Maya in the film were increasingly spending all their time with each other, not with sources, obsessing over tapped phone calls and covertly reading militants' emails.
A shift in the CIA
The relative prestige of being a CIA operations officer (Moran) and an analyst (Maya) flipped, as "hearts and minds" gave way to the Bush-era focus on killing terrorists, in many cases regardless of the collateral damage.
"When I was there the primary role of the agency was going out, recruiting sources, making friends, trying to get them to give us information," she says.
"After 9/11, the CIA really shifted and relied a lot more on gathering information through interrogation, hostile interrogation, torture."
By 2003, open discussion of torture at Langley had become commonplace, a change that "appalled" Moran.
"I heard people bragging about it in the hallways," she says, adding that to remove the controversial scenes of torture from a film like Zero Dark Thirty would be tantamount to airbrushing history.
The sexual side of spying
For all the talk of empowered women running the CIA's operations (the Bin Laden unit was "predominantly" female), life as a female spy had little to offer in terms of James Bond-style romantic liaisons, or even for more pedestrian relationships.
"It was very hard," Moran says, sighing.
"Most CIA people end up marrying other CIA people and then end up divorcing them and marrying more CIA people.
"That character in Zero Dark Thirty represented a certain type of woman at the agency that ends up married to the CIA".
And it got worse for women who managed to sustain a relationship, it seems.
"While I would like to be able to say at the CIA you can have it all, now that I’m a mother I cannot imagine doing that job to the fullest of my ability and all that it requires and also being a parent.
Moran married after she left the agency aged 33, and her husband is not a current or former spy.
"You’re probably not going to do as well in your career if you devote time to your kids," she argues.
And if you fully commit to a career that takes you abroad for months at a time? "The kids are raised more by nannies".
Don't outsource war
Moran moves to discuss the current administration's outsourcing of war, in the form of stepping up drone strikes in South Asia and Yemen, and is unequivocal in her criticism.
"If we take out one suspected terrorist with a drone but in the aftermath of that create 50 or a hundred or a thousand more what good is that?" she asks.
She adds she is "disappointed" Obama has failed to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, five years after he first pledged to do so, because she worries the hatred sown abroad will only continue to threaten Americans at home, seen most recently in the Boston bomb attacks.
"The mass perception in the Muslim world is very negative towards the United States and that harms our national security," she argues, setting aside the moral or ethical implications of invading Iraq and Afghanistan.
In future, Moran hopes female agents "keep a strong sense of the bigger picture".
If nothing else, she advises: "Remember what our country stands for."
Zero Dark Thirty is out on DVD and to download on June 10