By Melissa Boyle Mahle
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Melissa Boyle Mahle, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, recounts her first meeting with an Arab agent, one of her many experiences as a covert operative for 14 years in the Middle East.
(WOMENSENEWS)--I had been operational for over an hour, moving through the darkened streets, shedding my true identity along the way. From my home in the diplomatic quarter, I had driven my car into the city center, alternating my eyes from the road ahead to the rear view mirror, checking for surveillance. Once in town, I park my car and proceed on foot. I take my time, stopping here and there, always looking for shadows. I am now just a Western woman doing a bit of evening shopping in this bustling Arab city, which shall remain nameless according to CIA regulations.
Certain I am clean, I slip out one shop through a side exit. I am in a small, dark alleyway. Pleased to find it empty as usual, I reach into my shoulder bag, slip into a black robe-dress and quickly tie on my headscarf. In a matter of seconds, I am walking along the road, blending in with the other Arab women out for an evening walk. I have become invisible, a black blob in a crowd. I am now ready to commit espionage.
It is my first meeting with "Hassan." He did not show for the last meeting, when I was to have been introduced to him by "Jack"--my colleague who has since departed the country. Hassan had a reputation as a thug, a hard-nosed, hard-drinking, womanizing, security official. He was known as a "problem agent" because he frequently ignored security measures--he had no fear of getting caught--but because of his excellent access to a group of terrorists, he remained on the books and was well paid for his efforts.
Hassan knew Jack was leaving and that a woman would be his new case officer. For the one hundredth time, I ask myself why he did not make the meeting. A conflict? A lapse of memory? A boycott?
The no-show caused problems for me with my new boss. I was the first female case officer assigned to work for him, and he had his doubts that a woman could handle any Arab male, let alone Hassan. The boss wanted to reassign the case to a male officer, citing the importance of keeping Hassan on board. I protested, arguing I should be given the opportunity to fail at a minimum. We left it up in the air, with the boss reserving judgment until after this meeting--assuming there was a meeting, the boss skeptically noted.
I reach the agreed-upon meeting place just as a car approaches. It stops and I look in the opened passenger window. A voice in the darkness asks in Arabic if this is Medina Street. "No," I respond, "Medina Street runs behind the university."
"Can you show me the way?" the voice asked as the door is opened from the inside.
Satisfied with the exact exchange of code words, I get in the car.
I quickly introduce myself as Jack's friend Mona, the alias I have chosen for this operation. Hassan drives to an overlook and parks. I sense Hassan's tension. If this is to be successful, he must both trust and like me. I begin my wooing, telling a bit about myself, some true, most fabricated. I stroke his ego, telling him how important he is and well respected by important people in Washington. He warms a bit and a conversation begins to flow. He says he has come prepared for the meeting and begins to brief me on the intelligence he has collected. It is nice-to-know stuff, but not great. Is he holding out? Time will tell.
Switching topics, I say, "Hassan, we need to agree upon a cover story to explain why we are together if we are stopped and questioned." He growls that no one is going to stop us. Undeterred, I praise him for his important status, but suggest that since we are parked in an isolated spot ideal for lovers, we should play the part.
Now I have Hassan's full attention. If questioned, I suggest, he should do all the talking and make a point of protecting my honor--and identity--just as he would do if he was caught out with his mistress. Hassan is definitely taken with the idea, saying he knows just what to do. As he reaches to put his arm around me, I dodge and grab his hand. Looking him straight in the eyes while returning his hand, I remind him of the reason why we are meeting.
The cover story is just a story. Ours will be a business relationship; there will be no sex. Having been in this situation more than a few times, I know I must close that door firmly in our first encounter. I don't care if Hassan goes home and has wet dreams about me; I only care that he knows further advances will only lead to rejection.
It is time to end the meeting. As Hassan drives to the drop-off location, I review the plans for the next meeting. I pass him an envelope, stuffed with small bills in the local currency. On the seat I leave two bottles of booze and a carton of Marlboro cigarettes. He smiles and declares that we will be great friends and do important work, no doubt pleased that I am continuing Jack's practice of providing the hard-to-get products in this closed Muslim society.
Back on the street, I continue on my pre-planned route, making sure that I had not picked up surveillance while meeting with Hassan. As I walk, I review the meeting, generally pleased the results. Hassan will not be a problem. His production will need improvement, as will operational security. The alcohol on his breath betrayed his practice of having a stiff one or two to steel him before committing treason.
No, the boss will be the problem. I start planning my game to win him over, to show him I am just as good--if not better--than my fellow male officers. I know it will be a hard battle. However, I am optimistic because for all its foibles, I truly believe the CIA is a meritocracy.
Melissa Boyle Mahle is a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and author of "Denial and Deception: An Insider's View of the CIA from Iran-Contra to 9/11" (Nation Books 2004).
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