Created in the aftermath of World War II, the Central Intelligence Agency relied on women even as it attempted to keep them down and channel their talents, argues journalist and author Liza Mundy. Women were limited to sending cables, making so-called dead drops to clandestinely communicate information, and maintaining the files on the agency’s secrets. Despite discrimination—possibly even because of it—women who started as clerks, secretaries, and unpaid spouses rose to become some of the CIA’s shrewdest operatives.
They were unlikely spies—and that’s exactly what made them perfect for the role. Because women were seen as unimportant, pioneering female intelligence officers moved unnoticed around Bonn, Geneva, and Moscow, stealing secrets from under the noses of their KGB adversaries. Back at headquarters, women built the CIA’s critical archives—first by hand, then by computer. And they noticed things that the men at the top didn’t see, Mundy says. For example, as the CIA faced an identity crisis after the Cold War, it was a close-knit network of female analysts who spotted the rising threat of al-Qaida—though their warnings were repeatedly brushed aside.
After the 9/11 attacks, more women joined the agency as a new job category called targeter, involving data analysis, gained importance. They showed that data analysis was crucial to post-9/11 national security—an effort that culminated spectacularly in the CIA’s success in tracking down Osama bin Laden.
Mundy reveals how women at the CIA ushered in the modern intelligence age and how silencing them made the world more dangerous in her new book, The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA (Penguin Random House), which is available for purchase.
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