When you work at the CIA, you’re taught to keep everything you do secret. You must be invisible. As a woman who grew up in a patriarchal family, I was not unfamiliar with the imperative. So it felt dicey when I decided to make public that I worked at the CIA and was writing a book on the subject. Being exposed and vulnerable was unsettling, but with this exposure also came freedom.
I started working at the CIA shortly after 9/11. In the years that followed, there was an immediacy and relevance to the counterterrorism mission that is difficult to quantify. In 2005, I was assigned to support the CIA’s mission in Iraq. As a CIA targeting officer, my days were spent hunting elusive high-value targets, which typically meant high-ranking members of a Sunni extremist group.
In 2010, I graduated to hunting targets in the CIA’s Pakistan Afghanistan division—not just in support of the CIA’s capture/kill operations but also targeting for the potential recruitment of sources. These were challenging tasks in my 20s and early 30s—navigating both the war zones in the Middle East and the male-dominated vaults at Langley.
On one trip to the Middle East to debrief a terrorist we were trying to recruit as a source, I was told to let my male counterparts do the talking. This entailed describing me as an “expert from Washington” and a married, pious woman who took her faith very seriously. When I asked the reason for this backstory, my male colleagues said it was because the source had never met an American woman and that his idea of an American woman came from TV and movies.
At first I was appalled, but then I began to understand. This was when the TV show Homeland was wildly popular, in which Claire Danes plays a CIA officer with bipolar disorder who sleeps with the terrorist she is hunting. Similarly, Red Sparrow, starring Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian spy, shows the actor nakedly taunting one of the male trainees to prove that she’s unafraid to use her body in exchange for information. This was a widespread misconception among those inside and outside the agency about women at the CIA that I had to fight against constantly.
But it’s not all Hollywood’s fault. Mata Hari, who was convicted of seducing French men and spying for Germany during WWI, remains one of the most infamous female spies in history. Movies like Zero Dark Thirty staring Jessica Chastain, depicting the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, did a much better job, having resisted the temptation to reduce female spies into dominatrices who exchange sex for information.
My book is not a memoir; it is fiction based on fact. I did this not only to disguise the CIA’s sources and methods but also to tell the more compelling and true story of the moral and social struggles within espionage—stories people don’t hear. My upcoming thriller, The Syndicate Spy, sheds necessary light on what makes female intelligence officers truly unique in the recruitment and handling of spies and dispels some of the stereotypes propagated by some television shows, films, and other spy novels.
Spying is not the one-man (or one-woman) show that most of what we see and read would have us believe: it’s the work of many committed individuals, all playing their vital roles to bring about the demise of America’s foes and provide intelligence to our policymakers. In The Syndicate Spy, the three main characters—Juliet, Graham, and Mariam—grapple with their roles as spies in a fictional war. Juliet struggles to overcome grief and end the war that cost her father his life. Graham must forget about a burned source that turned up dead because of his careless spycraft. And Mariam, a Saudi princess, must decide whether or not to turn her back on her family in order to achieve a better future for women in the Arab world. All of these are struggles that I witnessed while I was at the CIA—the only difference is that they are fighting in a fictional (albeit believable) energy war.
When people ask how I got into the CIA, I emphasize that I did not have a fancy Ivy League education, nor was I the daughter of a diplomat. What I did possess was a strong work ethic and a high degree of emotional intelligence. By “emotional intelligence,” I mean the ability to gauge both a source’s veracity and their willingness to work with the CIA—something I believe women are better qualified to judge than men.
Over the years, we’ve heard a lot about the James Bonds, Jason Bournes, and Gabriel Allons of spy fiction. While highly entertaining and well done, it’s time for a different kind of spy story—one in which a real female spy emerges from the shadows to tell her tale.
Brittany Butler spent nine years as a CIA officer. Her debut thriller, The Syndicate Spy, will be published on March 21 by Greenleaf Book Group.