In Espionage Thrillers, Emotional Intelligence Matters, Too

From Publishers Weekly:

When you work at the CIA, you’re taught to keep everything you do secret. You must be invisible. As a woman who grew up in a patriarchal family, I was not unfamiliar with the imperative. So it felt dicey when I decided to make public that I worked at the CIA and was writing a book on the subject. Being exposed and vulnerable was unsettling, but with this exposure also came freedom.

I started working at the CIA shortly after 9/11. In the years that followed, there was an immediacy and relevance to the counterterrorism mission that is difficult to quantify. In 2005, I was assigned to support the CIA’s mission in Iraq. As a CIA targeting officer, my days were spent hunting elusive high-value targets, which typically meant high-ranking members of a Sunni extremist group.

In 2010, I graduated to hunting targets in the CIA’s Pakistan Afghanistan division—not just in support of the CIA’s capture/kill operations but also targeting for the potential recruitment of sources. These were challenging tasks in my 20s and early 30s—navigating both the war zones in the Middle East and the male-dominated vaults at Langley.

On one trip to the Middle East to debrief a terrorist we were trying to recruit as a source, I was told to let my male counterparts do the talking. This entailed describing me as an “expert from Washington” and a married, pious woman who took her faith very seriously. When I asked the reason for this backstory, my male colleagues said it was because the source had never met an American woman and that his idea of an American woman came from TV and movies.

At first I was appalled, but then I began to understand. This was when the TV show Homeland was wildly popular, in which Claire Danes plays a CIA officer with bipolar disorder who sleeps with the terrorist she is hunting. Similarly, Red Sparrow,starring Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian spy, shows the actor nakedly taunting one of the male trainees to prove that she’s unafraid to use her body in exchange for information. This was a widespread misconception among those inside and outside the agency about women at the CIA that I had to fight against constantly.

But it’s not all Hollywood’s fault. Mata Hari, who was convicted of seducing French men and spying for Germany during WWI, remains one of the most infamous female spies in history. Movies like Zero Dark Thirty staring Jessica Chastain, depicting the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, did a much better job, having resisted the temptation to reduce female spies into dominatrices who exchange sex for information.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

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