The life of a female spy

In her book "Denial and Deception," former CIA agent Melissa Mahle talks about giving birth in the morning and, with no maternity leave, returning to work the same evening.

Published April 2, 2005 12:12AM (EST)

There are books full of prohibitions for the pregnant woman: Don't drink alcohol, don't eat sushi, don't take saunas, don't embark on lengthy air journeys without getting up every hour to revive circulation. But not many bother with the warning: Do not try to dismantle volatile explosives during the second trimester.

It might have proved helpful to former CIA operative Melissa Mahle. In 1998, Mahle was the CIA station chief in Jerusalem when a call came in that Palestinian police had seized two bags of explosives at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. She was five months' pregnant -- a fact that she overlooked after arriving at the scene. "At the time I was focused on mission accomplished; I didn't even think about my baby," she says. Over dinner that evening, she learned that the friction of opening a a bag -- or wayward cigarette ash -- could have detonated an explosion that would have flattened the police station as well as Christendom's holiest shrine.

Mahle's years at the agency, described in her new book, "Denial and Deception: An Insider's View of the CIA From Iran-Contra to 9/11," were full of such what-ifs. Some are deeply personal, involving the choices Mahle made between career and family. Other choices were not of her making, but haunt her just as fiercely -- like the bureaucratic wrangling that allowed the escape of al-Qaida leader Khalid Sheikh Muhammad just as Mahle was closing in on him.

Now under interrogation by the CIA at an undisclosed location, Muhammad was the destructive visionary behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The original terror plot called for the simultaneous hijacking of 10 aircraft; Osama bin Laden clipped Muhammad's wings, telling him his plans were too ambitious.

In 1995, while Mahle was working in the Middle East, a man fitting Muhammad's description turned up in Qatar. At the time, Muhammad was a shadowy figure, and his exact importance to al-Qaida was relatively unknown -- as indeed was bin Laden's. But the CIA believed Muhammad was involved in a bungled plot in the Philippines and in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. "He wasn't in the top 10, but he had still killed Americans," she says.

Mahle was assigned the task of hunting him down, verifying his identity -- the CIA had a set of fingerprints -- and putting him under the control of the U.S. authorities. In her reports back to CIA headquarters, Mahle was all for a "snatch," spiriting Muhammad out of the country in secret. She says she feared officials in the Qatari government sympathetic to extremists would tip off Muhammad if a formal request were made for his arrest.

She argued her case to the highest reaches of the National Security Agency, where she was eventually overruled. The United States lodged a request with local authorities for Muhammad's extradition, and almost immediately the man Mahle had been hunting disappeared. Had she had her way, she believes, the post-Sept. 11 world might have been a very different place. "He had these two ideas in his mind as early as 1994. If he had been removed from the operational environment there might still have been a 9/11, but I doubt it would have [been] multiple airplanes crashing into an iconic building," she says.

At a time when the CIA has yet to recover from the colossal failure of the World Trade Center attacks, Mahle's is one of three female spies to come in from the cold with books on the world of espionage. Her book was published at the same time as a novel by Stella Rimington, the first woman to head MI-5, and a critical memoir by another former CIA agent, Lindsay Moran.

The publishing boom comes at a time when the CIA is braced for yet more uncomfortable revelations -- this time about discrimination within its ranks. Last week, Janine Brookner, a former station chief in Jamaica, began efforts to file the first class-action suit against the agency on behalf of women agents who say they lost their jobs because of sexism. This has caused a frisson in Washington, which, despite Rimington's example, does not appear entirely comfortable with the idea of female spies. In a recent TV appearance, Mahle was asked by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer: "If you're roaming around Ramallah or Jericho or Nablus on the West Bank, in any of these towns, an attractive American woman, a blonde, all these guys probably think you're out there, you're coming on to them."

Such attitudes have occasionally eclipsed the criticisms Mahle has made of the agency. In her view, the CIA was hobbled over the years by low morale and budget cuts, which made it slow to react and overly bureaucratic. In a changing world, the agency was also fatally blinkered -- a last preserve of white, middle-class men." I can't tell you how many minority applicants -- Arab Americans, Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, Indian Americans -- whom I lost to security or suitability," she writes in her book.

Women who made it past those gates weren't entirely welcome, either, especially out in the field, where there was a stubborn belief that women were not fit to recruit agents or run spy networks. They would be fatally handicapped by their gender, the old adage went, especially in the Middle East or Latin America, where they would not be granted full respect.

Mahle had a different experience. "I found the Arab male infinitely more predictable and manageable than Near East Division management," she writes. "With the latter, I always felt that I was walking on eggs. I sensed that at the first mistake, my career would be ended, because I did not have protectors in the old-boy system."

Her years at the CIA coincided with a period of great upheaval at the agency. She was recruited from university in the mid-'80s, soon after the Iran-Contra affair, a time when public distrust of the spy agency was at its height. Mahle, studying Middle East politics and international relations at graduate school, needed a job; the CIA needed an Arabic speaker.

She fell into the spy game, immersing herself in a shadowy world where lying to friends and relations was routine. In the old days, agents were barred from revealing what they did for a living; nowadays it is compulsory for agents to tell their spouses they work at the CIA. In Mahle's time, it was discretionary. She told her husband and her father, but did not dare tell her mother until she went abroad, fearful of the anxiety it would cause her.

Soon after Mahle moved to East Jerusalem in the late 1990s, a bomb went off near her house. "My mother was apoplectic," she says. "I can only imagine what she would have thought if she knew I was chasing terrorists rather than just avoiding them." But maintaining the deception was exhausting. "I am very close to my mother, and this was a very big piece of my life to keep secret," she says.

Her departure in 2002, during the aftermath of 9/11, was a forced exit. Mahle is barred from discussing the circumstances beyond the fact that she lost her security clearance for "lack of candor" about her contacts with Palestinians.

Her last posting outside the U.S. for the agency was in Israel and the occupied territories, and much of her job focused on building up the Palestinian security services and keeping tabs on militant groups -- although CIA regulations barred her from making direct contact with militants. She was also responsible for broader security arrangements, which meant that in 1998, she found herself making arrangements for a presidential visit from a hospital delivery room. Mahle went into labor six days before President Clinton made his historic visit to Israel and the territories. But there was no question of switching off her duties.

"There were a lot of security details that needed to be nailed down, and it was a high-threat environment," she says. "I had meetings scheduled. I had places to be. The Secret Service was in town." Mahle's daughter was born in the morning. By evening she was back on the job. "I remember thinking it was poor planning on my part," she says. But she had little choice; the CIA did not have maternity leave.

Other choices she confronted were heartbreaking. Soon after the Palestinian intifada erupted in September 2000, her daughter was just a toddler. Mahle, charged with assessing the dangers posed to U.S. citizens by the rising violence, advised the evacuation of all Americans from East Jerusalem. That included her daughter, but she could not leave her post to bring the child to safety. "Jerusalem was still smoldering from the riots and it was very difficult to navigate. I remember thinking that it was my job to go to my family at this time, and I couldn't do it. I had to send my [bodyguards] instead," she says.

She phoned home, and told the nanny to pack the baby photographs. "It was just one of those moments where you have to choose, and I made a decision based on my work. I felt I had failed my family."

Now, after more than a decade roaming the Middle East, Mahle lives in an affluent suburb of Washington with her husband and daughter. But she retains the habits of her former life, arriving early for meetings to scope out the surroundings, choosing restaurant tables with a clear view of the exit.

She no longer has to worry about swathing herself in dark robes and head scarf -- her method for disappearing into the crowd in the Middle East. When we meet at Washington's Union Station, Mahle, who is tall, carries a bright pink tote and matching handbag.

By Suzanne Goldenberg

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