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New CIA Director Gina Haspel follows in footsteps of legendary female spies

Elizabeth McIntosh, center, who conducted psychological warfare for the Office of Strategic Services, works in China during World War II. The OSS later became the CIA. (The OSS Society)

Gina Haspel just made history, winning Senate confirmation Thursday to become the first female director of the CIA.

Since the spy agency was formally established in September 1947, it has been dominated by men.

Haspel, who joined the agency in 1985 and worked undercover for nearly 33 years, had come under fire for overseeing a secret CIA detention facility in Thailand, where two al-Qaeda suspects were waterboarded in 2002, and for urging the agency to destroy videotapes of the interrogation sessions.

Gina Haspel is confirmed as CIA chief despite scrutiny of role in interrogation program.

At one point, she considered withdrawing her nomination to avoid damaging the agency and her own hard-won reputation as a woman who does her job well.

When the CIA was founded after World War II, a group of women — many of them former operatives from the Office of Strategic Services, the agency’s precursor — began working for Langley. Some, including legendary World War II spy Virginia Hall, were highly accomplished and brave operatives but did not earn the same salaries or promotions as their male counterparts. A far larger number of the agency’s women worked as secretaries or clerks.

To its credit, the CIA from its earliest days has acknowledged the gender inequities and has attempted to remedy them. In the early 1950s, then-Director Allen Dulles ordered an internal review — led by a group of CIA women famously called The Petticoat Panel — to examine the pay and rank disparities between male and female employees. According to the CIA’s website, the report found that the median grade for women was GS-5 and, for men, GS-9. Not a single woman worked in the senior executive service.

In the mid-1990s, several women in the CIA’s clandestine unit threatened to file a class-action lawsuit against their employer, accusing of it “widespread sexual bias and harassment,” according to a New York Times report. A federal judge approved an out-of-court settlement that required the CIA to pay the women $1 million, a figure that the officers unsuccessfully battled against because they thought it was too low. The women had claimed they had lost out on promotions by an entrenched “old boys” network.

President Trump has nominated Gina Haspel, a 33-year CIA veteran, to head the agency. (Video: Victoria Walker, Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Over the years, the CIA has dramatically increased the number of women in its ranks, with the agency reporting the percentage of women at the agency was just under 50 percent, including full- and part-time employees.

Women also have played major roles in two key moments in the agency’s history: They led the team that identified Aldrich Ames as one of the agency’s most notorious Russian moles; and they also dominated the group known as Alec Station established in the years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to track Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda operatives.

Before ‘The Americans’ and ‘Homeland,’ Russian TV spies were simple villains. No more.

Female spies have long captured the public’s imagination. They’ve had starring roles in Hollywood dramas, most notably “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the Navy SEAL raid that killed bin Laden, and Showtime’s “Homeland,” which stars an on-again, off-again CIA officer played by actress Claire Danes.

Here are some of the agency’s most notable female trailblazers:

Virginia Hall, “The Limping Lady”

The Maryland-born spy was known as “The Limping Lady” because she relied on a prosthetic limb after losing her left leg in a hunting accident. She worked for the OSS behind enemy lines in France to help foment the resistance against the Nazis. But she was being hunted by Gestapo chief, Nikolaus “Klaus” Barbie, who went by his own moniker, the “Butcher of Lyon.” Barbie once reportedly told his underlings, “I’d give anything to lay my hands on that Canadian b—-.”

The Nazis were closing in on a spy known as ‘The Limping Lady.’ She fled across mountains on a wooden leg.

With her life in danger, Hall finally fled France by trekking over the snow-covered mountains into Spain. She used her good leg as a snowplow and dragged the seven-pound wooden leg she’d nicknamed “Cuthbert” behind her, according to Judith Pearson’s 2005 biography of Hall, “The Wolves at the Door.” After the war, Hall joined the CIA, and last year the agency named a training facility after her.

Elizabeth McIntosh, legendary OSS operative

Originally a journalist in Hawaii who witnessed the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, McIntosh — known as Betty — spoke fluent Japanese and worked as a propaganda specialist across Asia and Southeast Asia during World War II.

As an OSS officer in the Morale Operations branch, McIntosh participated in all manner of deception. Once, she whipped up and distributed a fake Japanese government order demanding that its soldiers in Burma surrender. She even made a Japanese POW write the directive in calligraphy so it would look realistic.

But it was another operation during World War II that always haunted McIntosh. She was asked by her superiors to deliver a mysterious chunk of coal to a Chinese OSS agent at a railway in the city of Kunming, in the south of China. She later found out from her second husband and a senior OSS official that the coal was dynamite. The Chinese agent had apparently boarded a train full of Japanese soldiers and threw the bomb into the train’s engine as it was heading over a bridge, where it exploded and killed most of those aboard.

After serving in the OSS, she went on to work for the CIA, but she always kept mum in interviews about her work there. When she turned 100 in 2015, then-CIA Director John Brennan held a celebration for her. Three months later, she died.

Sandy Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, Russian mole hunters

These two women led the hunt for a Russian mole inside Langley who had been passing along some of the agency’s biggest secrets — the names of Russian informants — to the KGB. The mole turned out to be Aldrich Ames. By the mid-1980s, the CIA began noticing that several of its Russian informants were disappearing. Soon they concluded that the agency must have been infiltrated by a mole who was handing over the CIA’s most valuable information straight to its Cold War enemy.

The agency quietly assembled an investigative team, led by Sandy Grimes, Jeanne Vertefeuille, Diane Worthen, along with Don Payne and Paul Redmond. It took years of patience and painstaking work, but by 1992, Grimes began examining his finances and noticed mysteriously timed bank deposits into Ames’s account shortly after his meetings with a Soviet arms control specialist. After another two years, Ames was finally arrested.

Jennifer Matthews, al-Qaeda warrior

One of the early members of Alec Station, Matthews doggedly hunted al-Qaeda well before the phrase became part of American vernacular. She quickly ascended the agency’s ladder and, at the height of the chase for bin Laden, was promoted to run a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan.

On Dec. 30, 2009, according to a CIA internal report, she and fellow members of her team failed to follow standard safety procedures, and allowed a Jordanian doctor Humam al-Balawi — believed to be close to bin Laden — onto the base without ensuring he wasn’t carrying explosives.

When al-Balawi was driven onto the base, he blew himself up, killing Matthews and six other CIA operatives. After the attack, Matthews received criticism that she’d been fast-tracked and was unqualified to run the base, setting off rounds of backlash from former and current CIA officers who claimed the attacks were sexist.

Matthews’s role at the agency was depicted in the movie, “Zero Dark Thirty” and chronicled extensively by Post reporter Joby Warrick in his book, “The Triple Agent.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of “Homeland” actress Claire Danes.

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