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Liza Mundy — The Secret History of Women at the CIA

The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA (book cover)

Drawing on hundreds of interviews with key players, many of whom have never before gone on the record, including current CIA employees, journalist Liza Mundy reveals a portrait of a workplace hampered by bias and male ego and yet an agency populated by three generations of intrepid women who found creative ways to work within—and expand—the confines of the roles to which they were funneled for decades: from the women, beginning in the 1940s and 50s, who built the CIA’s critical archives, wrote cables, and maintained their colleagues secrets; those who fought blatant sexism and unfair bias in the 1970s and 80s to become operatives—often using their invisibility and second-class status to their advantage; to the women who transformed spy craft by spearheading the modern era of data analysis to combat increasingly cunning international terrorism, and tracked down Osama Bin Laden.

An over-due investigation of the role women have played in American intelligence since the founding of the Central Intelligence Agency, The Sisterhood also exposes how persistent institutional sexism in the intelligence community at times hindered U.S. national security. Sexism, Mundy provocatively shows, played a distinct role in how unprepared America was before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Just as she did so winningly in Code Girls, Mundy’s flair for storytelling brings these women’s rich personalities and incredible accomplishments to vivid life. The Sisterhood takes us to far-flung stations, dangerous cover operations, and inside the windowless depths of Langley, to uncover the stories of women and their hidden contributions to CIA history. We meet Lisa Manfull Harper, a multilingual diplomat’s kid who worked patiently as an unpaid spouse to her husband’s official Cold War posting, and we cheer as she fights bitterly entrenched sexism to finally graduate—after a decade of attempts—at the top of her class from the CIA’s training camp, secretly creating a network to help other women behind her. We’re alongside Heidi August as she is among the first to see Qaddafi’s coup underway in Libya, and races—with only another young secretary to help—to destroy confidential documents at the nearby military base and intelligence out-post. We later share in Heidi’s horror when, in 1985 on the island of Malta, she witnesses the aftermath of a terrorist hijacking and is powerless to stop the deaths of innocent passengers, including Americans. And we feel the stomach-clenching weight of recent history as we see Cindy Storer and the women of “Alec Station” uncover groundbreaking intelligence on a stateless group of jihadist fighters in Afghanistan, only to be ignored and sidelined by the CIA leadership.

Liza Mundy is an award-winning journalist and the New York Times bestselling author of four books, including Code Girls. A former staff writer for the Washington Post, Mundy writes for The Atlantic, Politico, and Smithsonian, among other publications. Her new book is The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA.

Shermer and Mundy discuss:

  • Research methods to get accurate CIA information
  • A brief history of the CIA
  • What is the purpose of intelligence agencies?
  • Misogyny and sexism in the early decades
  • What sorts of skills are needed to work at the CIA?
  • What sorts of skills are needed to be a spy?
  • Are there any differences between men and women for anything that the CIA does?
  • What do women notice that men don’t in the spy business?
  • Lisa Manfull Harper: “Lisa developed a feminine approach to espionage, using empathy and emotional intelligence to win trust and elicit secrets.”
  • How did women work around the restrictions on women advancing in the CIA?
  • Lisa Manfull Harper and the CIA in the 1950s and finding OBL in the 2000s
  • Heidi August and Muammar Qaddafi and fighting terrorism
  • Cindi Storer and tracking stateless Arab fighters who drove the Soviets from Afghanistan, mujahidin
  • Jeanne Vertefeuille and Aldrich Ames
  • Shirley Sulick and the KGB
  • Molly Chambers and 9/11, Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Meet the Women of The Sisterhood

Women have been vital to the Central Intelligence Agency since its founding, rising from clerks and secretaries to powerful leaders at all levels of the organization. Despite the institution’s efforts to hold them back, many of these women found subtle, sometimes surreptitious, ways to help one another advance. They noticed things men didn’t see, becoming some of the toughest, shrewdest operatives the agency employed, while making unique sacrifices.

Lisa Manfull Harper: An international debutante and the daughter of a U.S. diplomat, Lisa Manfull’s childhood in Paris and Belgium in the 1950s laid the groundwork for spy work, teaching her how to blend in and quickly adapt to unfamiliar cultures. Embarking on clandestine training at “the Farm,” the CIA’s training facility in eastern Virginia, Lisa Manfull was dismayed to learn that women recruits were steered toward desk jobs. It took Lisa ten years to work her way back to the full Farm course. She finished first in her class. Lisa developed a feminine approach to espionage, using empathy and emotional intelligence to win trust and elicit secrets. Defying many efforts to undermine her—an enduring specialty of the spy service—she rose to become the first female division chief, or “baroness.” She later returned from retirement to join the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Heidi August: As an eleven-year-old girl, Heidi wrote to the CIA inquiring about careers and received in reply a brochure about how to become a clerk-secretary. Ten years later, in 1968, as a college senior at the University of Boulder, she approached a CIA recruiter and was handed the same brochure. Heidi was posted to Libya, where she witnessed an uprising led by a little-known Libyan officer, Muammar Qaddafi. She moved on to European stations including Finland and Bonn, Germany, where she worked in a typing pool and endured a boss known as “Mr. Peepers.” In 1978, Heidi joined the ranks of the men she worked for, graduating first in her class at the Farm with the aid of quiet advice from Lisa Manfull Harper. In her initial case-officer posting, in Geneva, Heidi tapped into a wave of rising female discontent, targeting women assets, including one who was seeking revenge against her own exploitative bosses. Following her remarkable success in Geneva, Heidi was appointed station chief in the Mediterranean, followed by postings in the Middle East, Ireland, and India. The turning point in Heidi August’s career came in 1985, when she found herself on the island of Malta when a bullet-riddled Egyptair jet landed at Luqa airport after being hijacked by the terrorist group Abu Nidal. Among the scores of passengers killed was an American woman, Scarlett Rogenkamp, shot point-blank by one of the hijackers as Heidi watched from a control tower. Heidi felt a bond with the dead woman, and, in an era when fighting Communism was still the CIA’s central mission, vowed to devote her career to fighting terrorism.

Cindy Storer: In the 1980s, a new generation of women entered on duty. Even then, women were often marginalized and channeled into niche fields—like counterterrorism—where, as it happened, they were perfectly positioned to spot a rising menace. In 1995, the analyst Cindy Storer was among the first CIA officers tracking a stateless group of Arab fighters who had helped drive the Soviets from Afghanistan. In 1996, Storer began working with the mostly female team of “Alec Station,” a unit led by the analyst Michael Scheuer, which sought to divine the intentions of a wealthy Saudi-born businessman-turned-jihadist named Osama bin Laden. The women worked in a windowless basement unit of the CIA’s headquarters. The team struggled to raise awareness even as threats—and explosions—mounted.

Mary Bancroft: Allen Dulles served as OSS station chief in Bern, Switzerland, where his success led to his role as foundational director of the CIA. But his top wartime asset, Nazi officer Hans Bernd Gisevius, was mostly handled by Dulles’s right-hand woman, the multilingual Mary Bancroft (right). Bancroft is shown here with Dulles’s long-suffering and oft-betrayed wife, Clover.

Shirley Sulick: The CIA’s Cold War operations depended to a surprising degree upon the energy, social savvy, and navigational skills of CIA wives. Among the best was Shirley Sulick, who relished driving elaborate routes that enabled her to shake off KGB tails in Moscow so her husband, Mike, could jump out of the car undetected.

Molly Chambers: After 9/11 trans- formed the world she grew up in, Molly Chambers joined a third generation of female clandestine officers. Molly and her female colleagues called them- selves “lady case officers” and texted to cheer one another on amid the loneliness and anxiety of overseas postings in isolated and dangerous regions. Her work included applying new CIA tracking techniques to humanitarian missions including finding some of the “Chibok girls” kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Eloise Page: After WWII, women were urged to depart government jobs and make room for returning GIs. Among those who stayed was Eloise Page, a highborn Virginian who started as a secretary, learned her bosses’ secrets, and rose to become the first female overseas CIA station chief. Notoriously tough, Page got wind of an attempted rebellion by some of the men working in the station. Working her own sources even as members of her staff aspired to unseat her, she ran a successful operation to sabotage the saboteurs.

Sue Mccloud: One of the first female CIA spies of the Cold War, McCloud fit the classic espionage officer’s profile of someone who runs toward danger, not away. She took a train to watch the Hungarian revolution firsthand; handled a young asset named Gloria Steinem; exfiltrated Soviet defectors; and found many sly ways to bring women into the spy corps.

Jeanne Vertefeuille: Schoolmarmish, single, and singularly relentless, she led a team of cold-eyed female counter-intelligence officers who exposed the traitor Aldrich Ames after the agency’s old-boy network had ignored his reckless misbehavior.

Barbara Sude: The analyst Barbara Sude, equipped with a PhD from Princeton and a keen nose for a money trail, authored the famous August 6, 2001, President’s Daily Brief warning that al-Qaeda wanted to mount a strike on U.S. soil.

Gina Bennett: As early as 1993, Gina Bennett had written the first published warning about the “wandering mujahidin” and she continued to write prescient warnings based on her strategic instincts, even as she and fellow terrorism “nerds” went ignored by others in the agency.

Fran Moore: Overcoming decades of agency discrimination against mothers, Fran Moore rose to head the entire analytic directorate, and sat at the pinnacle during the successful hunt to bring down bin Laden.

This episode was released on October 31, 2023.

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