Spy-Turned-Author Looks Back At a CIA Mired in Bureaucracy
By Steve Coll
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page A17
"Look at me," Melissa Boyle Mahle said, her blue eyes shining, her short blond hair cropped in place as she leaned across her desk. "This is who we recruit to run against the Arab target."
She does appear a more likely infiltrator of Belfast than Beirut. Yet for 14 years after she joined the CIA's clandestine service as an operations officer in 1988, Mahle belonged to that cadre whose small numbers were often lamented after Sept. 11, 2001 -- American spies who spoke fluent Arabic and liked working the street.
Melissa Boyle Mahle served five tours in the Arab world as a CIA operations officer before leaving the agency in 2002. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
Melissa Boyle Mahle
Title: Foreign policy analyst.
Education: Bachelor's degree, University of California at Berkeley; master's, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University.
Family: Married; one daughter.
Career Highlights: Entered CIA Directorate of Operations as a case officer in 1988, acquired fluency in Arabic, won letter of commendation from President Bill Clinton for work in support of the Middle East peace process.
Book on her nightstand: "The Truth About Camp David" by Clayton E. Swisher.
She served five tours in the Arab world, running operations and recruiting agents. But now, after departing unhappily from the CIA in 2002 over "a mistake" in the field "to which I admitted freely," Mahle is the latest in a parade of disillusioned spies to write a memoir, pitching herself into the debate over what is wrong with American intelligence.
Like several of her CIA predecessors in print -- Robert Baer, Reuel Marc Gerecht and Michael F. Scheuer, who published two books as "Anonymous" -- Mahle sees her former agency as too often mired in process, averse to risk and poorly managed.
Her new book, "Denial and Deception: An Insider's View of the CIA From Iran-Contra to 9/11," is measured in tone and often generous to former colleagues and CIA leaders. But she also declares that the CIA became "totally focused on its own innards" in the 1990s and then proved unwilling to hold itself accountable after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Too often, Mahle writes, the agency has been hamstrung by "the rise of the committee, the anointing of bureaucracy, and the crowning of process."
She praises former CIA director George J. Tenet's management vision but denounces what she describes as his "total denial of failure" after Sept. 11.
Mahle writes that she and her colleagues at first thought that when Tenet defended himself in public after the attacks, he was just following "our mantra, 'Deny Everything.' " But as time passed, Mahle came to believe "[o]bviously something went wrong: why could the CIA not admit this?"
She concluded that Tenet "played it safe and played politics" and failed "to take the actions necessary to wage a real war on terrorism."
Her criticism echoes the recently reported findings of the CIA's inspector general. The IG's unpublished draft report on CIA leadership failures during the run-up to Sept. 11 is threatening to reopen debate about individual blame at Langley -- issues that congressional investigators had avoided, arguing that the failures were systemic.
Tenet, who is writing his own book, remains adamant that his record will be vindicated by investigators and by history. "Even a casual reading of the public testimony George Tenet gave before Congress, going back to the mid-1990s, would demonstrate that his was the loudest and clearest voice on the threat that al Qaeda presented to the United States," said his spokesman, Bill Harlow.
Mahle said she began her book project initially with far less pointed questions in mind. There were no good, recent guides for new CIA employees. After serving a tour in the hiring center, Mahle said, she feared recruits might labor under the mistaken belief that their new office would be like those depicted on television shows such as the Fox Network hit "24," where glamorous intelligence officers equipped with matchless technology make crisp, bold decisions to take down terrorists.
Reality, Mahle said, too often resembled her own experience at a West Bank restaurant in the mid-1990s. Eating at the next table was convicted terrorist planner Abu Abbas, mastermind of the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, from which hijackers killed and pushed overboard wheelchair-bound, 69-year-old American tourist Leon Klinghoffer.
"You should go arrest him," Mahle recalled her Palestinian lunch companion urging. But Mahle had no authority to do so. Instead, she wrote a cable to headquarters and touched off a months-long interagency debate in Washington about whether Abbas had been granted amnesty under Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, and whether the United States had sound legal and foreign policy reasons to indict him.
Abbas later found refuge in Baghdad. U.S. forces arrested him after the 2003 invasion of Iraq but had still not resolved his legal status when he died of natural causes last year.
After Sept. 11, Mahle said, experiences like her lunch beside Abbas led her to wrestle with questions about CIA reform "down in the weeds," far beneath the top-line wiring diagrams debated during the recent push for legislative reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community.
If that new law, which vests power in a centralized director of national intelligence and mandates other sweeping administrative changes, "is the end of the process, we're in big trouble," Mahle said.
Part of the trouble in the CIA's trenches, she argues, arises from the agency's hermetically sealed office culture, where secrecy and security can become excuses for avoiding risk.
She cites the agency's continuing struggles to recruit Arab Americans, Asian Americans and other second-generation immigrants with native speaking ability who might blend more successfully into Third World societies than someone who looks like her.
As a CIA recruiter, Mahle said she sent many well-qualified, diverse candidates on for security review, only to see large numbers wash out. While some were rejected for straightforward reasons, such as lying about past drug use, others were turned away because their "psychological profile" did not match the CIA's abstract ideal or because their family and social contacts overseas made their backgrounds hard to scrub.
"Security has no incentive to take risks," Mahle said.
The result "was best illustrated by a panoramic view of the swearing-in of the first class to enter on duty . . . after September 11; it was a sea of white faces."
A spokeswoman said the CIA "is actively pursuing individuals who have traveled abroad, have strong or native foreign language proficiency, prior residency abroad, particularly individuals with a background in Central Eurasia, East Asia and the Middle East. While we do encounter challenges in conducting security checks on some individuals, having family members who reside abroad is not an impediment to agency employment."
Mahle describes her own struggles as a woman in the male-dominated Directorate of Operations, which runs covert action abroad. Because the CIA has no provision for maternity leave, "while I was in labor delivering my first baby . . . I fielded calls on threat information from U.S. Secret Service agents" preparing for a visit by President Bill Clinton to Gaza and Bethlehem.
She said she cannot describe the field mistake that led to her forced departure from the CIA because the agency has warned her "in a very threatening letter" that the details are classified. She said only that her error involved "an unauthorized contact" overseas that was "not reported in a timely manner," and that her loyalty unjustly came under suspicion. She also said that during her years in the field, she saw men make the same kind of mistake, but they were not punished as severely.
Without making clear whether the question applies to her, Mahle asks in her book, "Why is a male operations officer not censured for having a personal relationship with an agent, and a female operations officer is fired for doing the same?"
A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment on Mahle's departure but said agency guidelines on "unauthorized contacts" are applied equally to men and women.
As a bravado-filled field officer, Mahle said, she had always dismissed discipline cases as the fault of the employee, not the CIA. Then she discovered "a special room in hell reserved for 'problem employees.' "
"Most Agency officers do not know anything about this part of the Agency," she writes. "Stories are dismissed as falsifications. . . . It is just too hard to reconcile the unfair practices, official dishonesty and purposeful humiliating treatment with the CIA that officers think they 'know.' "
After she left Langley, she went through a prolonged catharsis. She not only wrote her book, she also climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in a blizzard.
The farther away from Langley she got, the more she came to believe that at the agency, "the system feeds upon itself, creating 'true believers.' Those who leave the CIA, and with the passage of time and distance become nonbelievers, are often surprised by the sheer intensity of the culture they left behind."
For Mahle, at least, "the world outside-looking-in was very different than the world inside-looking-out."