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Players: Melissa Boyle Mahle

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)

In Profile

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.

Age: 42.

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.

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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.


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