Mahle Shares an Insider's View of the CIA and Why the Agency Failed on
This is Part 2 or a BuzzFlash interview with Melissa Boyle Mahle.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW | Part 1 | Part 2
Melissa Boyle Mahle was a CIA spy assigned to the Middle East. As author
of Denial and Deception: An Insiderís View of the CIA from Iran-Contra
to 9/11, she chronicles the history and culture of the CIA and the
turmoil at headquarters in Langley. She also tells what it was like to
be a woman spy on the ground. As a former clandestine operative, she has
a unique vantage point from which to view the political and operational
culture of the agency in the post-Cold War climate, and to reveal how
the CIA failed to anticipate the 9/11 attacks. The result is an intriguing
tale of how the successive directors of the agency Ė five directors in
six years before the confirmation of George Tenet in 1997 Ė managed the
CIA amidst growing terrorism and extremism in the Middle East. Melissa
Boyle Mahle was the top-ranked female Arabist in the CIA when she retired
as a covert officer in 2002. She received a letter of appreciation from
the President for her work on the Middle East peace process. Since leaving
the government, Ms. Mahle has worked as a private consultant on Middle
Eastern political and security affairs.
In the first part of our two-part interview with Melissa Boyle Mahle,
we asked her why the CIA failed to anticipate the 9/11 attacks, how the
CIA became risk averse in the 1990s, and what the impact of the Iraq war
might be on the fight against terrorism. In this, the second part of our
interview, Melissa Boyle Mahle describes having lunch next to a known
terrorist, briefing the secret service while in labor, being a mom in
a volatile region, and being in the boys club of the CIAís clandestine
* * *
BuzzFlash: I want to talk about your tenure
as a CIA covert operative in the Middle East. One of the surprising stories
you write about was an experience in a West Bank restaurant in the mid-1990s,
and sitting right next to you at an adjacent table was a terrorist, Abu
Abbas, who masterminded the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise
ship. How do you react in a situation like that? Do you immediately call
headquarters and say, ďYouíre not going to believe this but today I had
lunch next to a terrorist?Ē Is it part and parcel to the work, that youíre
surrounded by unsavory characters in this dirty business of spying?
Melissa Boyle Mahle: This is one of those beautiful examples
that shows what happened to the Agency. When I find myself seated across
the way from a known terrorist Ė somebody whoís killed Americans Ė the
only action that I can take is a bureaucratic action of starting a dialogue.
Basically it means sending off a cable to Washington and starting a debate
within the Washington establishment. Thatís the only step I can take.
And you have to ask yourself: how is it that we, the United States, have
got into this situation where we do not have an empowered intelligence
CIA officers have no arrest powers. Thereís a terrorist there. I know
heís there. I go back. I write a message and a debate starts. Can we go
after this guy? Can we do a rendition? Do we want to do a rendition? Do
we have a valid indictment? Could we bring him to the United States and
try him in a U.S. criminal court? And could we win that case? So you get
into this long legal argument and all of that. And six months later, finally
a decision came out the other end. And that decision happened to be no,
weíre not going to do anything about this. It just shows you the very
good point and example of when the systemís broken down.
BuzzFlash: You were a language specialist, and a spy,
and a woman stationed in the Middle East. You were also very much inside
a boys club. Explain to us what that was like entering into the Agency?
Did you feel like you were pioneering on some level or were you trying
to fit in with the boys, as it were?
Melissa Boyle Mahle: I think the answer to that is both.
First of all, when I joined the organization, it was what I called the
good old bad days, and they actually didnít tell you very much about it
before you joined. I had no idea what I was doing. So you get into this
culture of secrecy and have to find out some of the details of what youíre
actually going to be doing for a living. And you become very much involved
in learning your new trade.
One of the things that was very apparent to me was that I was an anomaly.
And not that there werenít other female case officers Ė operations officers,
as they call them now. But there was nobody else like me Ė a woman that
spoke Arabic, had a lot of knowledge of the Middle East before coming
into the Agency, and that indeed wanted to work in the Middle East. And
so when I went to management to say I want to use my Arabic, and I want
to be assigned to the areaís geographical division Ė I went over and I
talked to these people. I didnít see any people who looked like me. They
were all men. And so it was the beginning of seeing the mountain in front
of me. But they also only hire certain kinds of people Ė people who can
perform. And I met that category perfectly because when I see a challenge
Iím going to meet that challenge and deliver. I could beat the bureaucratic
mindset that women canít work in the Middle East. And so thatís what I
set out to do, and I did it. I was very successful, but Iíll tell you
that the field was small. There are very few women that came before me
or after me that did exactly what I did, and did it well.
BuzzFlash: And in addition to that, you didnít put your
life on hold for your career. Youíre a mom and raised your daughter during
this period. You got no maternity leave and worked right up to your delivery.
In fact, you write about having to brief the secret service during labor
about security measures for President Clintonís scheduled visit to the
Melissa Boyle Mahle: Youíre right, the Agency doesnít
have maternity leave, and we look at it differently than how we would
look at in the United States. I was assigned in the field at the time.
For me to say that I wanted to take significant time off to have a baby
would have meant that I would have lost my assignment. And I wasnít willing
to make that decision at that point in my life.
I think one of the things that I learned subsequently is that you have
changing priorities after you have children Ė not just as a woman, but
also families have changing priorities. But at that moment, I wasnít willing
to give up my plum assignment because it was very interesting and very
challenging. So I stayed and I made the decision Ė Iíll have the baby
in Jerusalem, and then continue working. And I did it. You know when you
set your mind to do it, you do it. And when youíre a typical overachiever
like most operations officers are, you manage to fit it all in.
When I was briefing the Secret Service while in labor, you donít really
stop and ask yourself, ďIs this crazy or nuts? Why am I in labor and still
taking phone calls?Ē At that moment in time, I had a job to do. Frankly,
when you work at the CIA, the CIA always comes first. Thatís a requirement.
And if you donít give that, you donít survive in the culture of the organization.
So for me, in that moment of time, of course Iím going to take those phone
calls, and of course the Presidentís safety is very important and Iím
going to put it in front of my own personal needs. I guess it all worked
out fine because the President had a successful visit and I had a successful
pregnancy. But it kind of gives you a glimpse into what we put our officers
BuzzFlash: We imagine or have our own perception of what
it must be like to have meetings with high-ranking officials. And clearly
there is a lot of necessary formality that exists. And yet at the same
time, itís also riddled with very human and day to day moments. One of
the things that jumped out at me was when you had a meeting with the late
Yasser Arafat, and because your nanny had a day off, you had to bring
your baby, correct?
Melissa Boyle Mahle: Yes, and that wasnít the only time
that it happened. It happened to me multiple times, not necessarily with
Yasser Arafat, but, with senior leadership. Any parent knows, when you
donít have day care, and when you have the baby, youíve got to come up
with an alternative solution. And my solution was, you know, put the baby
in the car seat and off you go.
BuzzFlash: Any parent worries about his or her childís
safety, but being a parent and working as a CIA operative in the Middle
East must have been overwhelming at times.
Melissa Boyle Mahle: Oh, definitely. I have some horror
stories and Iíll share briefly one of them. We were in Jerusalem and it
was after the intifada had started. And there was a lynching in Ramallah
in which an Israeli soldier had wandered into a Palestinian town, and
had been picked up and brought to a police headquarters. And then this
mob of Palestinians merged onto the police headquarters and they took
this poor Israeli and they lynched him. And it was early in the intifada
and the tensions were very high. Jerusalem was still burning at this time
with riots. We thought the whole situation was going to blow. As a security
official, I have to be concerned about the safety of Americans. And so
I was working from my office very closely with U.S. policymakers deciding
what we were going to do. We started making plans for evacuation. And
they said the first move was to move all official Americans out of the
Arab areas in East Jerusalem. But I couldnít leave my command post because
I was our chief security person.
BuzzFlash: The Agency comes first, right?
Melissa Boyle Mahle: And work comes first. And I couldnít
go evacuate my family. And instead, I had to send my own security detail
to do that job for me. And it was one of the worst experiences.
BuzzFlash: Later in your career, when you went back to Langley,
you worked on recruiting agents. We have such a Hollywood version of the
CIA and what it means to be a spy and an operative. What would you say
it takes for a person to become a CIA operative?
Melissa Boyle Mahle: Besides the standard stuff, which
is basically we look for smart people and individuals that are worldly
and have some international experience. What kind of personality do you
need to be a good field operations person? I mean, to be able to work
the streets, to disappear, to be able to have the judgment and confidence
to make decisions instantly in stressful environments, and to be able
to stand by those decisions and have them be the right decisions? And
so, what you end up looking for and hiring is people that have very good
solid senses of who they are, of their values, and of their own integrity,
people that are risk takers but not rule breakers. You want people who
are extremely flexible in their outlook on life and the demands that are
being made upon them. Iím not going to go into great detail about the
kind of person we would look for, but basically people you can drop in
anywhere and theyíll be self-sufficient and theyíll be self-motivated,
and theyíll be aggressive to do the job.
BuzzFlash: You left the Agency when you made a mistake
in the field and brought it to the attention of your superiors. Nonetheless,
they asked you to leave. In your book, you said that you saw other agency
employees who had made even more egregious mistakes who were men but didnít
face the same repercussions. Do you think that, since your time at the
CIA, that much has changed in the culture, or that thereís at least a
little bit more balance of how they treat female operatives and spies?
Melissa Boyle Mahle: In a fair assessment, youíd have
to say thereís been tremendous change. But they were so backwards to begin
with there was a lot of terrain that needed to be traveled. If you compare
where they were in the 1980s to where they are in this millennium, you
see two different organizational approaches to diversity. What you do
see today is that women are making major inroads into the Agency. And
within the clandestine operations, youíre also seeing that, but to a far
lesser degree. The Agency still has a lot of work to do on this front.
But Iím confident that the kinds of women they hire are going to continue
to make progress. At the end, I think you have to keep on pushing because
itís not something that organizationally will happen all by itself.
BuzzFlash: I know this is a tricky question to ask to
identify a type of thinking as either masculine or feminine, but do you
think that the Agency suffers from this imbalance?
Melissa Boyle Mahle: Absolutely, why write off half the
brainpower? And women can do different things than what men can do. And
everything is about context when youíre in the field. I think that thereís
an old school mentality there. There are still dinosaurs, as we like to
call them, but the mindset is dying off. And I think thereís an understanding
that women have a lot to contribute. But thereís still that glass ceiling
that needs to be really broken.
BuzzFlash: Thank you for your time.
Melissa Boyle Mahle: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW | Part 1 | Part 2
* * *
Denial and Deception: An Insiderís View of the CIA From Iran-Contra to
9/11, by Melissa Boyle Mahle
BuzzFlash Interview with Michael Scheuer, ex-CIA bin Laden Unit Chief,
on Why Insurgents Are Willing To Die Fighting American Soldiers, Jan.
Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia, and the Failure
of America's War on Terror by Senator Bob Graham, Jeff Nussbaum