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Spy-Turned-Author Looks Back At a CIA Mired in Bureaucracy

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.

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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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."

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