Americas

Sunday 13 July 2014

Women: the secret weapon

Published 17/12/2012|05:00

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Seldom has art, contrary to Oscar Wilde's dictum, appeared to imitate life so closely. Just as television audiences on both sides of the Atlantic are gripped by the denouement of 'Homeland' and the fate of Carrie Mathison, the maverick CIA officer portrayed by Claire Danes, a strikingly similar tale emerges from the bowels of the agency's headquarters in real-world Virginia.

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An undercover female Middle East specialist who played an integral role in the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden is said to have clashed sharply with colleagues after she – like Carrie in her pursuit of a fictional terrorist mastermind – was proven right: in her case, about the location of the al-Qa'ida chief. The agent's identity is now the subject of intense interest since she is the model for 'Maya', the lead character in director Kathryn Bigelow's new Hollywood take on the mission, 'Zero Dark Thirty'.

While others in the CIA had wavered, the real-life Maya repeatedly declared that she was "100 per cent" certain that Bin Laden was hiding at the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was eventually killed last year. When an email was sent around the agency announcing that she was among a group of officers who were to be decorated for their triumph, 'Maya' is said to have clicked "reply-all" and unleashed a tirade. "You guys tried to obstruct me," was the gist, according to one recipient. "You fought me. Only I deserve the award."

Her frustration was understandable. Jessica Chastain, who plays Maya in 'Zero Dark Thirty', says the officer is "a servant to her work".

We know that 'Maya' is in her 30s, but the little we know about her beyond that is limited to the account of the Bin Laden raid by Matt Bissonette, one of the Navy SEALs involved, in his book 'No Easy Day'.

Patronising

He strikes a remarkably patronising tone about a woman whose dogged work helped snare the world's most wanted man.

"She didn't have to get dirty in her line of work," he writes of plans for handling Bin Laden's body. "She wore expensive high heels and didn't worry about carrying dead weight to a waiting helicopter."

Noting the "tears rolling down her cheeks" when she finally inspected her quarry, and that she was seen "hugging her legs to her chest in the foetal position" en route back to base, Bissonette depicts an erratic, emotional wreck. "It was easier for us," he says. "We saw dead bodies all the time." Keen to deliver a juicy yarn, Bissonette's Maya begins to take on some of the characteristics of Carrie in 'Homeland', who is unstable, unpredictable and regarded as a loose cannon.

To some degree, the fact that both 'Homeland' and 'Zero Dark Thirty' focus on women reflects a change in the way we in the West perceive what we once called the "War on Terror". For as long as fury and moral certainty drove our revenge against those who flew planes into our skyscrapers and blew themselves up on our Underground trains, audiences sympathised with Jack Bauer, the gung-ho protagonist of '24' and hero of David Cameron and John McCain.

Yet more than a decade on – after all the faulty intelligence, catastrophic military planning and disclosures of torture – Carrie and Maya seem on one level to be apt symbols for our conflicted, war-weary age. But while fictionalised representations of women working on the frontlines of anti-terrorism may capture the popular imagination, their cooler-headed real-life equivalents appear to be showing their male colleagues how it should be done.

According to Peter Bergen, the author and global security expert, "the prominent role that women played in the hunt for Bin Laden was reflective of the largest cultural shift at the CIA in the past two decades". Tamir Pardo, the director of Israel's formidable Mossad agency, has reported finding that women are better suited than men to several aspects of intelligence work – particularly at "suppressing their ego in order to attain the goal".

"Women have a distinct advantage in secret warfare because of their ability to multi-task," Mr Pardo said earlier this year.

"Women are gifted at deciphering situations. Contrary to stereotypes, you see that women's abilities are superior to men in terms of understanding the territory, reading situations, spatial awareness. When they're good, they're very good."

Nonetheless, women – who comprise about 40pc of senior CIA staff – continue to face predictable challenges to their career progress.

"For decades, the message has been drummed into the public mind that female CIA officers must rely on their looks and clever ways with a weapon to be successful," Valerie Plame, the CIA agent outed by aides to George W Bush during a dispute over the Iraq war, has claimed. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked by seemingly reasonable people whether I had to sleep with sources to get the intelligence."

The agency insists it has changed dramatically since the bad old days. In 1995, it was forced to pay out about $1m (€759,000) to more than 400 past and present female employees as a result of a class-action lawsuit alleging sexual discrimination.

Yet one female former CIA official said colleagues assumed she was not up to the task. "One of the challenges is that as a younger woman in a predominantly male environment you might be underestimated. People might not expect you have a lot of expertise, that you have knowledge of counter-insurgency or nuclear proliferation."

Lindsay Moran, a case officer with the CIA from 1998 to 2003 – who says she was accused of "deviancy" after confessing to having had oral sex – recounted "a vast double standard in the agency's attitude toward male and female employees".

She claims that the men, who were free to "do whatever they wanted", were told by older hands: "Prostitutes do not have to be reported – as long as you don't see the same prostitute more than once." Yet new female recruits were instructed: "You will want to be mindful of your 'reputation' and how it can impact your career."

Such discrimination can only be fuelled by popular depictions of erratic behaviour by women in the field.

While Britain boasts two former women directors of a major intelligence agency in Baroness Manning- ham Buller and Dame Stella Rimington – both, in part, inspira- tions for Judi Dench's 'M' in the recent James Bond films – the US has always given the top jobs to men. Tara Maller, a former CIA analyst, says President Barack Obama has a chance to correct this, following David Petraeus's recent resignation as CIA director, by appointing a woman to the role.

"Women have to develop different ways of getting where they are, after having to rise in an area where they are a minority," she says. "They have differences in risk-aversion, in decision-making."

Amid mounting fears in Washington this week of an economic, rather than terrorist-driven, apocalypse thanks to the so-called 'fiscal cliff', the record-breaking new class of 20 female US senators would probably agree.

"I think if we were in charge of the senate and of the administration, we would have a budget deal by now," Susan Collins, a Republican senator for Maine, says. Women in Congress, according to Claire McCaskill, a Democrat senator for Missouri, are "less confrontational and more collaborative than their chest-beating male counterparts".

For now, however, they must shout louder to have their arguments heard – just as 'Maya' appears to have been frustrated by the old order.

"We're all in this together," Bissonette tells her at one stage in his account.

"You mean the boys' club?" she replies. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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