5 Gals who paved a ‘way’ at CIA

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BOOK REVIEW: Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage

By Nathalia Holt / G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Reviewed by Cipher Brief Expert Karen Schaefer

The Reviewer — Karen Schaefer is a 25-year CIA veteran who worked in the Agency’s National Clandestine Service. She held numerous senior leadership positions that included Deputy Chief, Near East for Counterintelligence, Chief of Operations, Directorate of Science and Technology, as well as senior CIA representative to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  

REVIEWIn Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage, we learn that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but it is also more inspiring. 

This book, a riveting biographical account of the lives of five women trailblazers in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is an excellent read on many levels. It enhances our understanding of the early years of the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA, as well as the CIA in its formative years.  It likewise brings to life the role these five silent warriors played in the Cold War, defining human intelligence (HUMINT) and technical tradecraft and in helping to avert nuclear war. 

Through carefully crafted stories this book is a not-so-subtle argument for greater diversity – in this case gender diversity –  in an organization tasked with thwarting an increasing and diverse array of adversaries.  

Ms. Holt brings her impressive journalism skills to bear on this project.  The New York Times best-selling author of Rise of the Rocket Girls, The Queens of Animation, and Cured, The People Who Defeated HIV, has once again chosen a topic that allows her to shed light on a group of women who played a pivotal role in our nation’s national security and whose stories and contributions would otherwise likely remain untold.  

The book is well-researched. Ms. Holt relied on a mix of archival materials: diaries, letters, photos and datebooks and interviews with colleagues.  She also benefited from the Freedom of  Information Act to gain access and cooperation from CIA historians and staff.  Her use of appropriate CIA lexicon, her accurate depiction of operational tradecraft and technology, and the historical backdrop make it an even more compelling read.

Ms. Holt does an excellent job of curating stories which highlight these five ordinary women who accomplished extraordinary things, not in spite of, but more often because of, their gender.  She does not whitewash the narratives.  She captures the bureaucratic and institutional obstacles these women faced in being accepted in and promoted inside a predominantly “male, pale and Yale” organization.  She similarly highlights the operational and security challenges these women faced while operating in hostile environments.  While she rightly applauds their successes, she does not shy away from acknowledging their early failures, as part of a steep learning curve.”  

Brief references to complex topics such the CIA’s controversial Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) program; the power struggle between clandestine and covert action missions, as well as the caliber/motivation of newer generations of officers, momentarily distracts the reader from the otherwise factual and motivational account of these women.

The release of this book during the 75th anniversary of the CIA is fitting.  It’s an excellent time to highlight and celebrate the contributions these five women made inside the national security apparatus.  It is also a good reminder that diversity is not optional.  If we are to effectively compete today, we must rely on a cadre of intelligence officers that reflects the diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age and experience that our adversaries already possess.  

This book earns an impressive rating of 3.5 out of four trench coats.

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