When the US finally captured and killed Osama bin Laden last year, it sounded like a classic “manly men defeat terrorist” story: A team of brawny Navy SEALs stormed bin Laden’s compound, and justice was done. But a controversial, unauthorized new book about the raid adds another key character to the mix: “Jen,” a CIA analyst who had been tracking bin Laden for years, and played a key role in guiding the SEALs to their destination. (No word on whether she looks like Angelina Jolie‘s CIA agent character in Salt.)
In a new article in Newsweek, reporter Eli Lake tells Jen’s story — without revealing her real name, of course — and explores the tangled history of women in the CIA. In the agency’s early years, women were relegated to secretarial roles, far away from real spy-work. But today, women occupy 40% of the agency’s senior leadership roles. And they’re often taking positions that let them work somewhat regular hours in safer locations, allowing them to maintain a family life in ways that overseas undercover spies can’t. Jen, for example, is a “targeter,” who works with special forces teams to focus on one person or group (like a terrorist, or an arms dealer) by sifting through drone footage and other intelligence to pinpoint their exact location. The majority of targeters are women.
Here are some great tidbits from Lake’s account (which is worth reading in full):
- The CIA’s first unit devoted to keeping track of Al Qaeda hired almost 100% women during the 1990s. The unit’s first head says that their investigative work led directly to early captures of top leaders soon after September 11. “If I could have put out a sign on the door that said ‘No men need apply,’ I would have done it,” he tells Lake. Several experts tell Lake that women are superior at this particular job because of their attention to detail.
- Senior CIA analyst and mother of five Gina Bennett tells Lake: “I do not think women, any more than men, have to choose between family and a CIA career anymore. … Not only has my husband been completely supportive of the fact that my job was a calling for me, but my children have understood the concept of serving the greater good. They do not treat me as if I am making a choice between them and my job.”
- The CIA hasn’t always been a female-friendly place to work. Valerie Plame, played by Naomi Watts in the 2010 movie about her exposure as a CIA operative, tells Lake that her new boss asked to see her in his office soon after she began work as an undercover agent. When she arrived, his feet were on his desk and he was smoking a cigar. He looked her up and down, asked her to turn around, and said, “You’ll do.”
- President Obama, to a stiletto-wearing female CIA analyst introduced to him as “the best Pakistan expert I’ve ever seen”: “You don’t look like a Pakistan expert.” Um.