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The CIA's Real Drone Queens

By Toby Harnden - October 21, 2014

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By Toby Harnden

When President Barack Obama went to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to be briefed on drone operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he was taken aback by the number of female spies directing the agency’s secret killing programme.

A week later, the CIA’s top expert on Pakistan was summoned to the Oval Office. She was strikingly attractive in her stiletto heels. “You don’t look like a Pakistan expert,” the president told her, breaking into a grin.

Obama was mistaken: the expert was typical of the new generation of CIA officers. Many are women in their thirties with a decade or more of experience in hunting down terrorists and vaporising them with Hellfire missiles.

The dilemmas confronting “the sisterhood”, as they are known to colleagues, is central to the fourth season of the hit drama Homeland. In the first episode of the new season, shown on Showtime and Channel 4, Carrie Mathison, the bipolar CIA officer, orders an airstrike on a farmhouse in Pakistan. Afterwards, her staff give her a birthday cake iced with the words “drone queen”.

It then turns out that dozens of women and children at a wedding party have been killed. Carrie hides the truth.

Obama has hailed Homeland as “a terrific psychological study”. Claire Danes, who has won two Golden Globes for her portrayal of Carrie, says a “senior woman in the CIA” is the basis for her character. Dining with the officer, she was struck by her “adventurous spirit” and candour, and by how quietly she spoke.

Some at the CIA view Carrie as a composite character, much like Maya, an intelligence analyst in the film Zero Dark Thirty who is relentless in her determination to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.

Others regard Carrie as a work of imagination encapsulating some of the qualities and flaws of real agency women.

The CIA is now almost 50% female. Its director is a man but the next three posts below him are filled by women. They are instrumental in waging the CIA’s anti-terrorist war, playing a disproportionate role in some of the most lethal and morally ambiguous tasks of an organisation that has long been regarded as a bastion of outdated machismo.

More enlightened employment practices have contributed to this. But could it be, as some senior intelligence officers argue, that the true-life drone queens are simply better than men at stalking terrorists and deciding when and how they should die?

“IT’S a reality,” said Bruce Riedel, who spent 29 years in the CIA and later became an adviser to Obama. “Girl power. That’s what they call it within the CIA.” Women, he posited, tend to be better “at seeing connections than most of their male counterparts” when they are dealing with data.

“I’ve seen it, particularly on issues where there’s a tremendous need for precision in remembering enormous amounts of very detailed information. It seems there’s an advantage in having female chromosomes.”

Cindy Storer, formerly one of the CIA’s senior al-Qaeda analysts, was part of a “band of sisters” — in the words of General Michael Hayden, the director from 2006-9 — who contributed to bin Laden’s demise. Bin Laden first came to her attention in 1992, when her job was to monitor jihadist veterans of the Afghan war with the Soviets.

“My role was to say, holy crap, this is a terrorist group and this is how they’re structured, this is what they do and this is where they are.” Storer believes that the success of female CIA officers could be down to “brain science”.

“Men tend to be linear thinkers — it’s the hunter- gatherer thing, right? Women tend to be all over the place and can hold a whole bunch of different stuff in their minds at the same time. Some people will say that women tend to be more patient and tenacious . . . The men I worked with, I did see a difference, with women being more comfortable with ambiguity. A lot of the men wanted things to be in neat boxes.”

In the opening sequence of Homeland, Carrie’s fixation with preventing another terrorist attack on America is explained when she looks back on September 11, 2001.

“I missed something once before,” Carrie says. “I won’t . . . I can’t let that happen again.”

Storer went through the same emotions after 9/11. “It takes a long time to get to the point where you think that, yes, there was probably nothing we could have done.”

Lorraine — not her real name — served as a CIA operations officer in Iraq, where she directed Delta Force units to carry out raids on terrorist targets. She said: “The drone stuff that Carrie goes through is real.

“In Iraq, there were raids every night and it was often down to me as to where they were. If I sent Delta in, I knew a lot of people could get killed. It was a life and death decision.”

Lorraine would view video from cameras mounted on the helmets of the Delta Force soldiers from an operations room close to the CIA’s Babble On bar, where spies and soldiers would unwind after missions.

By day, she would research targets while the special forces troops would pump iron or sleep in preparation for the nightly raids. “The terrorists would always do stuff in residential areas,” she said.

“They’d have women and children around them as cover. So, yes, innocent people got killed for sure and I was responsible. I didn’t feel good about it but it was a war.”

Nada Bakos, a CIA targeting officer, spearheaded the agency’s team that pursued Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who was killed along with his wife and child when two 500lb bombs were dropped on a house north of Baghdad by American forces in 2006.

Her job was to track Zarqawi and his group, just as Carrie has gone after the fictional Abu Nazir’s network in Homeland. “You’re looking at what their challenges are, where their vulnerabilities are, what are their strengths from an operational perspective,” said Bakos. “And you’re obviously looking at disruption options, and sometimes that includes drone strikes.”

In Homeland, Bakos said, Carrie seems “very disconnected” from the horrific results of the attack. “If you are wrong, there’s innocent people involved. Anybody who’s a human being with empathy and feelings would never be OK with that.”

THE CIA employs psychologists to monitor employees for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, either of which can end a career. Former spies insist the agency would never tolerate an officer who was bipolar. “Oh my God,” said Bakos. “She’d be in jail.”

There have, however, been uncanny parallels between Homeland and real life. Carrie fell pregnant by the former US marine officer Nicholas Brody after he became a terrorist and she persuaded him to act as a double agent for the CIA.

In a case that has never been made public — and was unknown to the Homeland writers — a married female CIA officer operating in the Palestinian territories had an affair with an “asset” and later returned to America, where she had his baby.

Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier held prisoner by the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly four years before being freed in May, was accused of having been “turned” by his captors. His case was oddly reminiscent of that of Brody, played by Damian Lewis.

Alexander Cary, a former Scots Guards officer who served in the Gulf War and is now one of Homeland’s five writers, stresses that Carrie is a fictional character and in essence a personification of post-9/11 America.

“We’re telling a story about a woman who has had to numb herself to what has happened and what she’s done to the point of becoming this kind of American killing machine, the drone queen,” he said. “I suppose Carrie is our characterisation of America. When it’s performing well it’s performing extremely well. And when it goes over the edge it goes over the edge with both feet and both hands.”

Carrie — who is branded “a monster” by the pilot who has bombed the wedding party on her orders — shows flashes of femininity in the heat of war. Just before the airstrike, she complains that she was due to Skype her sister.

Storer said she and her compatriots had sometimes been denigrated for adding a feminine touch to their austere workplaces. “After 9/11 . . . we still made birthday cakes for each other. It’s not like you stop being a woman.”

Avril Haines, 43, is the CIA’s deputy director. She studied judo in Japan, worked as a car mechanic in Chicago and once hosted erotica readings at a Baltimore cafe. As Obama’s top foreign policy lawyer, she would often be summoned in the middle of the night to help decide whether a terrorist on Obama’s “kill list” should be killed by a drone strike.

Now Haines can sometimes be seen at Starbucks, buying an iced latte. Waiting outside is a black armoured Jeep bristling with aerials and manned by security officers wearing earpieces. If need be, Haines can make secure phone calls from the vehicle and watch video of drone strikes.

Under Obama, 349 drone strikes in Pakistan have killed almost 4,000 people, an estimated quarter of them innocent civilians. It is five years since Obama’s visit to CIA headquarters to meet the real “drone queens” for the first time. Several have risen to more senior positions in the CIA’s killing apparatus.

The next time Obama authorises a strike in Pakistan, the odds are that it will be a woman who gives the green light moments before death is delivered from a drone stationed several miles away. 

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Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission. 

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