In the film “Zero Dark Thirty,” a young CIA officer known only as “Maya” is relentless – apparently obsessive – in tracking down Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. For years, she badgers her agency superiors. She moves back and forth between CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and CIA facilities in South Asia, sometimes witnessing waterboarding and other abuse of terrorist suspects in Afghanistan. Finally, her years of persistent work pay off and the Navy’s Seal Team Six puts away bin Laden forever.
“Maya” is a real person, we’re told, and the filmmakers say their work is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.”
Now, art having reflected life, life seems to be imitating art's sequel.
For the first time, a woman – a CIA veteran – is running the agency’s National Clandestine Service.
As first reported by the Washington Post (which withheld her name), the woman is serving in an acting capacity until CIA director John Brennan appoints a permanent replacement for the clandestine service chief who retired recently. She is reported to be on a short list of candidates, and she is broadly supported within the agency.
“The service is the most storied part of the CIA. It sends spies overseas and carries out covert operations including running the agency’s ongoing drone campaign,” the Post reports. “The service has also long been perceived as a male bastion that has blocked the career paths of women even while female officers have ascended to the top posts in other divisions, including the directors of analysis and science.”
The woman under consideration is in her 50s, and she reportedly served as the CIA station chief in London and New York, spent years working inside the agency’s Counterterrorist Center, and once was in charge of a so-called black site, playing a role in developing the CIA’s post-911 detention and interrogation program.
Because of her background in detention and interrogation, news that this woman is running (and may permanently oversee) the clandestine service is being met with criticism – particularly since she is said to have been directly involved in the destruction of 92 video tapes made of interrogation sessions that included the “enhanced” methods often labeled “torture.”
One such critic is Glenn Carle, the agency's former deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats who served 23 years in the clandestine service.
"Appointing someone who directly supported the enhanced interrogation program – as opposed to having been part of the system that engaged in it – would be a mistake," Mr. Carle told Foreign Policy magazine. "We should repudiate these sorts of practices, whatever the pressures and judgments of the moment were."
"My understanding is that the United States prosecuted Japanese soldiers after World War II for having waterboarded Allied soldiers," he said. "Perhaps we should avoid raising to the highest position in the Clandestine Services someone so directly implicated in the same practice … this time engaged in by Americans."
The destruction of the interrogation video tapes infuriated many members of Congress. The US Justice Department investigated but did not file charges in the case.
Responding to questions this week about the woman being considered for the job, CIA spokesman Preston Golson said the acting director "is one of the most senior and respected officers in the agency and is, of course, a strong candidate for the job."
During his recent confirmation hearings, Mr. Brennan was pressed on whether he agreed with a Senate report's conclusion that waterboarding and other abusive interrogation measures did not work.
Brennan said he had read parts of the report and that he did not disagree.
Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan asked Brennan if he thought waterboarding was “torture.” Brennan did not answer directly, but called waterboarding "reprehensible” and something that “should never have been employed.”