CIA Vaults a Woman into Top Spy Ranks

Central Intelligence Agency
The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia, August 14, 2008. Larry Downing/Reuters

Move over, boys. Continuing its appointment of women across its senior ranks, the CIA has promoted a veteran female operative into the number two slot in its espionage and dirty tricks division, Newsweek has learned.

The woman, whom Newsweek is not naming because she remains under cover, is the second female in a row to become deputy chief of the National Clandestine Service, the home of the spies. Its previous occupant also served briefly as acting NCS chief until her connection with the CIA’s detention and interrogation program doomed her chances for holding on to the job. After accepting a demotion back to deputy earlier this year, she was compensated with a transfer to London.

The new number two, said to be fluent in French, has held senior operational posts in plush European CIA stations, in New York, and at headquarters, but not the Middle East or other hardship posts, multiple sources said.  The hole in her post-9/11 resume has provoked some grumbling among CIA veterans who have spent much of their careers in places like  Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

“We need people willing to do hard things in hard places and she hasn’t done that,” said one former operative, on condition of anonymity. “If you’re going to ask young people to put their lives on the line, you’d better have done that yourself.”

But another former  intelligence official called such a view outdated. “You don’t need to serve in tough places. That’s old-agency bullshit.”  

The woman is no stranger to the CIA’s seventh floor executive suites. In 1999, then-CIA Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt, who had been a Luxembourg station chief, made her his executive assistant. In 2002, “he moved her into the Counterterrorism Center in a very high-profile job,” the former operative said, “for which she had no experience whatsoever.”

“It's very clear that he did this because the person in that job got visibility in places like the situation room at the White House,” the operative maintained. “She couldn't have found Afghanistan with a map and a flashlight.” Her new boss, the current head of the National Clandestine Service, Frank Archibald, “was her deputy” then,  he said.

The number two NCS slot will give her a lot of sway over the CIA’s far-flung stations, but it isn’t as important a job as it was during the storied years of the Cold War, when the agency’s operations director lorded over U.S. spy missions.  In a post-9/11 shake-up, the CIA’s wings were clipped by a new national intelligence director, but its clandestine service still runs the spies.

In the 1990s, the new number two was a protégé of Mary Margaret Graham, who held several senior intelligence jobs before retiring in 2008, Intelligence sources said.  But it was Archibald, who does have Pakistan experience, who gave her the job.

“She’s a very hard worker,” the former U.S. intelligence official said of the woman. “She’s not a dilettante.”

CIA veterans believe the agency has been looking hard for a woman to run the NCS, a notion officials strenuously deny. Women already hold several top jobs at the spy agency including general counsel,  chief of staff,  deputy director, executive director and chief of intelligence. But a women has yet to be picked for arguably its most prestigious job--chief of the spies.

CIA Director John Brennan’s practice is to let division and branch chiefs choose their own deputies. But he chooses who runs the directorates, and it’s not likely this one will ascend to the top spot in the National Clandestine Service, well-placed sources said.  

“She’s broken a lot of pottery along the way,” a former superior of hers said, on condition of anonymity.  “She would go over the head of station chiefs,” he alleged. “It rubbed some people the wrong way.”  

One dispute involved a field assignment she botched in Europe and blamed on a colleague, according to the former operative. And many of the spies she recruited during a European posting, the operative said, “turned out to be worthless”  Her successor was given the assignment of cutting them loose.

The CIA declined comment for the record.

Jeff Stein writes SpyTalk from Washington. He can be reached confidentially via spytalk[at]

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