In this episode of the Spybrary Podcast, host Adam Brookes interviews Liza Mundy, author of “Code Girls” and “The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women and the CIA”.
Mundy discusses the often overlooked contributions of women to the CIA, highlighting the challenges they faced due to gender biases. She shares stories of women who played crucial roles in intelligence gathering and analysis, including Lisa Harper, the first female division chief at the CIA. Mundy also explores the moral dilemmas faced by women in the CIA post 9/11 and the lessons learned from their experiences.
More About Liza Mundy
Liza Mundy is an award-winning journalist and the New York Times-bestselling author of five books including her latest work, The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA (2023). Her narrative non-fiction aims to engage, delight, and inform readers by providing a compelling take on important parts of American history that have long been overlooked, expanding our collective understanding of our past by telling true stories of the people, often unsung, who shaped our world.
More About The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA by Liza Mundy
Created in the aftermath of World War II, the Central Intelligence Agency relied on women even as it attempted to channel their talents and keep them down. Women sent cables, made dead drops, and maintained the agency’s secrets. Despite discrimination—even because of it—women who started as clerks, secretaries, or 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. 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-Qaeda—though their warnings were repeatedly brushed aside.
After the 9/11 attacks, more women joined the agency as a new job, targeter, came to prominence. They showed that data analysis would be crucial to the post-9/11 national security landscape—an effort that culminated spectacularly in the CIA’s successful effort to track down bin Laden in his Pakistani compound.
Propelled by the same meticulous reporting and vivid storytelling that infused Code Girls, The Sisterhood offers a riveting new perspective on history, revealing how women at the CIA ushered in the modern intelligence age, and how their silencing made the world more dangerous.
Unveiling the Secret History of Women in the CIA
Liza's new book, “The Sisterhood,” delves into the untold stories of women who joined the American espionage effort during World War II. After writing “Code Girls,” which focused on women breaking codes during the war, Liza was intrigued by the parallel cohort of women who contributed significantly to the development of the CIA.
Interestingly, Liza shared that the CIA had published a pamphlet called “From Typist to Trailblazer,” which led to the declassification of some material related to women's involvement in intelligence during World War II. Women played a crucial role in typing, reading, editing, and packaging intelligence reports. However, post-war, women were mostly driven out of the CIA, particularly from the prestigious and sought-after positions in the clandestine service.
The Role of Women in the CIA
Despite the evidence of their capabilities, such as Virginia Hall's work in Europe, women were often excluded from becoming operations officers or spies. Liza explained that women in the CIA were not only responsible for organizing and managing information, but also for writing letters and amassing secrets about the men in power. These women, known as “vault ladies,” were the memory and brain of the CIA, knowing everything and strategically using their knowledge to their advantage.
The Story of Lisa Harper
One of the remarkable women Liza introduces in her book is Lisa Harper, a woman who fought her way into the clandestine service. Despite facing challenges and being typically assigned to desk work, Harper eventually earned her way back into clandestine training and had an extraordinary career. She witnessed a coup in Libya, was posted in Finland, and became the first female division chief at the CIA.
The Challenges Faced by Women in the CIA
Our conversation also revolved around the challenges faced by women working in the CIA and the distinction between covert operations and pure intelligence gathering. Liza discussed how female officers had to work with and meet with “bad people” in order to implement the peace process. She also mentioned the pioneering work of women in tracking loose networks of jihadist fighters and the challenges they faced in getting their conclusions acknowledged within the CIA bureaucracy.
The Evolving Nature of Intelligence Work
Liza highlighted the competition within the counterterrorism center, where some individuals focused on covering recognized terrorist groups, while others were tasked with investigating Al Qaeda and individual terrorists. She also noted that while women in the CIA have made progress in terms of career opportunities and influence, they found themselves in a difficult position after the 9/11 attacks.
The Moral Dilemma
The focus on counterterrorism and covert operations, such as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, led to a moral dilemma for many intelligence officers. The work became more lethal, with the targeting of terrorists for apprehension, torture, or drone strikes, often resulting in civilian casualties. Liza described a sense of regret and sadness among some women in the CIA, who questioned the mission and their involvement in controversial practices like rendition and torture.
Lessons Learned in the Intelligence Community
Towards the end of our conversation, we shifted to the lessons learned in the intelligence community. Liza highlighted a group of analysts who hunted down Osama bin Laden and had to come to terms with failure and public criticism. She also mentioned the importance of humility and confidence in tradecraft for targeting officers.
In conclusion, our conversation with Liza Mundy shed light on the significant contributions of women to the CIA and the challenges they faced. Her book, “The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women and the CIA,” is a must-read for anyone interested in the untold stories of women in the intelligence community.
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