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The Women Who Saw 9/11 Coming

The Women Who Saw 9/11 Coming

One day toward the end of the 20th century, John Rizzo, a career lawyer at the Central Intelligence Agency, found himself chatting with Jack Downing—a former Marine and stalwart Cold Warrior who had been brought out of retirement to oversee the clandestine service.

The two men were talking about an analyst named Michael Scheuer, the cerebral but polarizing leader of a team focused on a terrorist group called al-Qaeda. Skeptical that Scheuer was up to the job, Downing brought up a perceived weakness of his staff. “The only people who work for him are girls,” he scoffed.

It was a small moment, but one Rizzo never forgot. “I remember him saying girls,” Rizzo told me in an interview before his death in 2021. Ironically, Downing, who also died in 2021, was seen as relatively supportive of women at the CIA.

Back in 2018, I met with a group of CIA historians to talk about women’s roles and experiences at the agency. The historians pointed to the striking number of women engaged in several key missions, chief among them the tracking of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, both before and after the 9/11 attacks; Scheuer’s team of “girls” played a key part. Over three years of book research, I interviewed more than one hundred female officers at the agency, including at least a half dozen who were involved in the bin Laden effort—some of whom had not spoken previously about their work, or not extensively—as well as many of their male colleagues. What became clear in these conversations was that many of the women who charted al-Qaeda’s rise felt that their work was undervalued or ignored and that their gender was part of the equation.

The cover of Liza Mundy's new book
This article has been adapted from Mundy’s new book.

For decades, the CIA, founded in 1947, had been a boys’ club. The agency made a practice of hiring women as clerks, record-keepers, and secretaries, but not placing them in top jobs, particularly those that involved spying. According to a series of reports conducted during the Cold War decades, the view among many officers at Langley was that women were more emotional than men, less likely to be taken seriously abroad, and unable to succeed at the vital spycraft of running agents—that is, recruiting foreign nationals to share state secrets. When the agency’s equal-opportunity office investigated a discrimination complaint brought by a female officer in the late 1970s, the resulting report found “unwitting, subliminal, unconscious discriminatory procedures which have become institutionalized by practice.” The agency settled with the complainant, but then, in the mid-1990s, found itself settling two major sex-discrimination lawsuits brought by women in the clandestine service.

Sexism also existed in the analytic directorate, the large cadre of officers who take what the spies collect and make conclusions and predictions. A 1992 “glass ceiling” study commissioned by the CIA found that women made up nearly 40 percent of the professional workforce but only 10 percent of the elite Senior Intelligence Service. Women often found the headquarters environment “uncomfortable and alienating,” the study said, while white men tended to be given “career-making assignments.”

This history helps explain the dismissiveness that the largely female group tracking al-Qaeda perceived. For more than a decade beginning in the mid-1980s, the emerging discipline of counterterrorism was a low-priority mission, which is one reason so many women were shunted into it. But although they were well positioned to spot the earliest signs of al-Qaeda’s rise, they often had trouble getting their voices heard when they sounded warnings. That the male analyst they were most closely associated with—Scheuer—was contentious in the building didn’t help.

Not all the women were heroes; the team had flaws just as any team of men would. They did not always make themselves pleasant to colleagues or bosses. They did not always agree on the approach, methods, or level of aggression warranted toward terrorists and their leaders. After 9/11, some were as susceptible as men to the excesses of the War on Terror. But for years beforehand they endeavored to make known that a dispersed group of fighters—while lacking a formal military or high-tech weaponry—was capable of turning America’s own technology against itself, and fully intended to do so.

Countless investigations have examined why the United States didn’t see 9/11 coming, and the explanations are many. But one factor these assessments don’t fully capture is that some analysts did know that such an attack could happen, and that many of the earliest, most tenacious, and most perceptive of them were female, in an institution that had long underestimated women and their work.

One of the first officers to pay attention to al-Qaeda was a twentysomething analyst named Cindy Storer, sharp-eyed, good at math, a lover of puzzles. In 1989, Storer joined the desk responsible for looking at Afghanistan, which for 10 years had been occupied by Soviet invaders, with the CIA basically running the resistance. The year she arrived on that account, the Soviet Army was defeated; two years later, the Soviet Union fell. Afghanistan, for most officers, faded into unimportance. “We walked away from it,” William Webster, then the CIA director, later admitted.

Storer, however, stayed on the beat, watching as tribal factions fought for control of the country. She began noticing something else: Arab fighters who had traveled from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia to help repel the Soviet occupiers were now fanning out across the world. In Afghanistan, they were known as “foreign fighters” or “Afghan Arabs.” They called themselves mujahideen: Islamic warriors pursuing jihad, or holy war, against infidel nations. They were violent, anti-Western, and growing in number.

Storer began teaching herself how to do terrorism analysis, a new skill that entailed making sense of fragments such as travel records and intercepted conversations among fighters using code names. Sifting through transcripts, cables, and Arab-language news articles, she set out to track which fighters were being influenced by which people and groups. As she talked to colleagues and bosses, however, it seemed to her that they minimized the threat at a time—the “peace dividend” era—when CIA resources were shrinking and desks were competitive and short-staffed. “Nobody wanted to hear about it,” she told me.

At least, not until she met with a more senior Near East and South Asia analyst, Barbara Sude. Sude was a perfect example of how women at the CIA had been funneled: She’d earned her PhD in the mid-1970s and applied to the agency on a whim. At the time, women were mostly being hired as secretaries, and the agency had a special test with a pink cover, which included questions like: Would you rather spend time putting on makeup or go without? Upon being hired, she was routed to an offshoot unit—the Foreign Broadcast Information Service—where she worked for a decade before making her way into an analyst job at CIA headquarters.

An expert in medieval Islamic thought, Sude turned her attention to political Islam and, at Storer’s suggestion, added Islamic extremists to her portfolio, including those with links to terrorism. The two analysts studied illicit financial transactions, looking at nongovernmental organizations to see which ones were diverting donations for nefarious purposes.

Soon, a third woman, Gina Bennett, joined their efforts. After Bennett graduated from college in 1988, she applied to the CIA. She didn’t get an interview, so she took a job as a clerk-typist at the State Department. She was quickly promoted to the department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, known as the INR, where she worked as a junior analyst in the terrorism “watch office,” which fielded cables about explosions and threats. Months into her new job, on December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. Nearly 300 people died in a terrorist bombing attributed to Libyan agents.

The killing of civilians—students, families, children—was horrific, and Bennett, like the other women, sensed a pivot: Terrorism was rising and changing form. From her desk in Foggy Bottom, she began to study the flow of foreign fighters leaving Afghanistan and going into Chechnya, Kashmir, the Philippines, surfacing in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Burma.

Bennett, pregnant with her first child, began working on a memo for the INR’s daily bulletin, a compendium of intelligence for diplomats and the national-security community. In early 1993, she was finishing a draft when her water broke. Twenty-four hours later, she underwent an emergency C-section. A few days later, the phone rang by her hospital bed; a car bomb had gone off in a parking garage of the World Trade Center in New York City. “Your people did this!” her supervisor exclaimed, meaning that she’d had her eye on the right target. Bennett was back to work within weeks of giving birth.

Her stunningly farsighted memo “The Wandering Mujahidin: Armed and Dangerous” ran in the August 21–22, 1993, weekend edition of the INR’s bulletin. The same network of donors that had “funneled money, supplies, and manpower to supplement the Afghan mujahidin,” Bennett wrote, “is now contributing experienced fighters to militant Islamic groups worldwide.” The fighters excelled at guerrilla warfare, could travel easily, and had technological know-how. “The perception that the U.S. has an anti-Islamic foreign policy agenda raises the likelihood that U.S. interests increasingly will become targets,” she warned.

At a time when the name Osama bin Laden had appeared almost nowhere in the Western press, Bennett named the man to beware of. “Among private donors to the new generation [of fighters], Usama Bin Ladin is particularly famous for his religious zeal and financial largesse,” she wrote.

Having crossed paths with Sude at the CIA, Bennett invited her to join an informal interagency group studying the fighters. Sude invited Storer, and the women teamed up with a handful of officers from State, the CIA, the FBI, and the FAA, who met in borrowed offices, sharing papers, insights, and research.

Storer created a slide deck that showed where the fighters were moving and used symbols to denote what they did: Establish an office. Set up a training camp. Make a bank deposit. Blow something up. Another member of the group, the State Department analyst Lyndsay Howard, invited Storer to share her insights with people higher up. Around late 1993 or early 1994, Howard went door to door to leading bureaus at State and begged colleagues to send somebody senior to Storer’s briefing. The group listened to the presentation, but when Howard followed them out, she heard two or three people walking down the corridor laughing, she told me. They seemed to think Storer was exaggerating, ginning up a new enemy to justify the CIA’s continued existence.

At Langley, Storer could barely get the threat acknowledged. In February 1993, her team sent an item about the foreign fighters, authored by two colleagues, to the editors of the President’s Daily Brief, the compendium of urgent items that is presented every morning to the “First Customer” in the White House—Bill Clinton, at the time. The editors declined to include the item, Storer told me. After the WTC bomb exploded, an editor called and asked what her office knew about “Afghan Arabs,” she recalled. She suggested he read the PDB item that had been sitting in the drawer for two weeks.

Eventually Storer and Sude both found their way to the CIA’s counterterrorist center, a niche unit created in the 1980s to respond to hijackings and attacks in the Middle East. By 1995, the agency was becoming more cognizant of the threat posed by bin Laden. A small “virtual station” was created within the center, initially to examine his financial dealings. Mike Scheuer headed the outfit—dubbed “Alec Station,” after his young son—and recruited a team of mostly women analysts. Scheuer, by his own description, was the second or third pick for that job, which was not ardently sought by ambitious colleagues who perceived that the bureaucracy, overall, still had not fully embraced the mission.

The hardworking Scheuer grasped early on the magnitude of bin Laden’s success in cajoling other extremist leaders to come together in a multiethnic effort to kill Americans and drive the United States out of the Middle East. But Scheuer was also aggrieved, contemptuous of the political establishment, prone to go after his critics, and incessantly at odds with the FBI, from whom Alec Station sometimes hoarded information (and the other way around). “He was always a little nuts,” as one officer put it, “but he was our nut.” Storer and Sude each did stints working alongside Scheuer’s team, though not as part of it.

“I had enormous respect for the women who worked for me,” Scheuer told me, describing them as “experts at minutiae, putting pieces of information together or thinking, ‘Hey, two months ago I read something about this,’ and they’d go back and find it. They didn’t spend much time at all around the water cooler telling war stories.”

Having a female staff made it harder for Scheuer to get buy-in within the larger organization, however. Operations officers scoffed at his team. “What’s his staff? It’s all female,” the ops officer Glenn Carle is quoted observing in the journalist Peter Bergen’s book Manhunt. “It was just widely discussed at the time that it’s a bunch of chicks,” Carle continued. “So, the perspective was frankly condescending and dismissive.”

Scheuer’s team was not given its own ops officers to collect information overseas, so he tapped his reports officers—a traditionally female job that entailed disseminating cables—to wheedle materials from colleagues on other desks. Another Alec Station team member, Jennifer Matthews, helped create a new field—targeting—that entailed finding terrorists where they hid. Working with her was Alfreda Bikowsky, known as Freda, who combined a steel-trap memory with a restless manner and an aggressive approach that some of the other women, including Storer, sometimes argued with. Darrell Blocker, a CIA officer who worked with Bikowsky years later and saluted her focus and competence, described her personality to me as “not warm and fuzzy.” When Bikowsky came to Alec Station in the late 1990s, as chief of operations, she set about expanding what “operations” could mean: no longer just recruiting foreign nationals to pass secrets but also “figuring out who it is that we should be looking for, who they’re connected to,” she told me. It was, she said, “manhunting.” (Bikowsky later drew controversy when she participated in the post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation” program, working as an analyst vetting detainee assertions, and served as an architect of the agency’s efforts to defend what was condemned by many as torture.)

Gina Bennett, at Scheuer’s urging, left the State Department and joined the CIA to work on the al-Qaeda mission. Over the next few years, Alec Station grew to about two dozen people, and remained 80 percent female. The women did not always get along. Those working for Scheuer, or some of them, exhibited ferocity and suspicion. Some, Storer felt, regarded outsiders, even Storer herself, as not necessarily entitled to know what they knew.

Nonetheless, diving into the “troves” of files that the Alec team collected, Storer had an epiphany moment: “I’m like, holy crap, it’s a terrorist organization.” Bin Laden’s fighters weren’t a loose federation but a bureaucracy, complete with a payroll and franchises. Yet even in the counterterrorist center, colleagues on other accounts remained doubtful that scattered fighters could pose an organized threat on the level of Hezbollah or Hamas. As Storer put it, many officers regarded the terrorists as “ragheads who lived in a cave,” when in fact the leaders were “doctors and lawyers and military officers who knew their shit.”

The agency’s bureaucracy presented another problem. Most of the classified reports the CIA produces are “corporate products,” which means that anyone with a stake in a memo or paper must sign onto it before it’s published. Consensus must be secured, desk by desk, and that’s especially hard when you are female, junior, and laboring in an obscure unit. Around 1997, Storer said, she set out to write a definitive paper with “everything you wanted to know about bin Laden and al-Qaeda.” The draft was 60 pages long. But she “couldn’t get other desks to agree,” she told me. A supervisor wanted her to break it into small parts, she recalled. Storer said the full version was never published.

By mid-1998, Storer had long been warning colleagues that bin Laden’s organization had the ability to stage simultaneous attacks. On Friday, August 7, she turned out to be right: Major explosions occurred at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. When the attacks were conclusively linked to al-Qaeda, this was, as one operations officer later wrote, a “profound” revelation, in that it showed that bin Laden could conduct “large-scale bombings of U.S. targets.”

Gradually, the truth was working its way to the agency’s seventh floor and to CIA Director George Tenet, who tried to convey to the White House the extent of the threat. A series of plans to capture bin Laden were formed but were rejected by top officials, who worried about how precise the targeting was and the danger of putting civilians at risk. After the 1998 embassy bombings, Tenet paid a visit to Alec Station. As he wrote in his 2007 memoir, a female member approached him and, “quivering with emotion,” confronted him about one plan to apprehend bin Laden that had gotten nixed. Many CIA women later noticed the phrase and resented its implication that the women had been emotional and weak.

As 2000 gave way to 2001, Storer found herself reading terrorist communications that used words like “Olympic-sized” and “Armageddon.” In October 2000, suicide bombers in Yemen blew a hole in the USS Cole, killing 17 American sailors, and analysts were shocked when the outgoing Clinton administration did not retaliate. In 2001, Tenet began begging the incoming administration of George W. Bush to let the CIA mount an operation that allowed for killing bin Laden rather than capturing him. Analysts expected that another major attack could happen in the summer, and Storer felt responsibility and dread: This is going to happen on your watch.

In July, Barbara Sude was tasked with writing a PDB that tackled the question everyone was wondering: Might the big attack occur on the U.S. mainland? She remembers her boss saying words to the effect of, “They are looking for a piece on bin Laden and the U.S.” From this loose instruction, Sude fashioned one of the most famous warnings in American history.

She and a few other analysts had written nearly 40 warning items that year alone. She had a pile of papers two feet high on her desk, including one by the FAA about hijackings. Crafting the memo with the input of colleagues, Sude noted that bin Laden had implied in TV interviews that he wanted to follow the example of the 1993 World Trade Center bomber, Ramzi Yousef, and “bring the fighting to America.” The memo pointed out that the 1998 bombings of the embassies in East Africa, which bin Laden associates had scoped out as early as 1993, showed that al-Qaeda was patient and “not deterred by setbacks.” Al-Qaeda members “have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years,” she wrote. Threat reporting suggested that bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft, and the FBI had noted patterns of activity suggesting “preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks.”

She faxed a draft to the FBI, and sent it up to the PDB editors, who titled it “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.” But the editors wanted more statistics from the FBI. Sude called the Bureau again and learned that it was conducting “approximately 70 full field investigations” looking into “bin Ladin–related” activity in the United States. Sude added that information to the draft. The item was put in the book on August 6, and the president was briefed.

Sude would always wonder: When President Bush was told of the existence of more than 70 FBI investigations into bin Laden activities in the American homeland, did the commander in chief worry? Did he ever call the FBI director and ask him what was going on? Bush later told congressional investigators that he felt heartened to learn of so many investigations. He took it to mean that things were under control. After the August 6 PDB ran, four weeks passed before the Bush administration had its first Cabinet-level meeting about the threat posed by al-Qaeda, on September 4, 2001.

The day of the attacks, the CIA staff evacuated headquarters, except for people in the counterterrorist center. The women there, who thought that a plane might be headed for Langley—and for them—felt a mixture of fear, anger, failure, resentment, and guilt. In the coming years, they worked to prevent more attacks and to track down the perpetrators, particularly bin Laden. One team member, Jennifer Matthews, died in that effort, killed alongside colleagues when a suicide bomber infiltrated the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan. Some, like Cindy Storer and Barbara Sude, continued hunting terrorists for many years, until they retired. Gina Bennett was still at the CIA when bin Laden was found and killed on May 2, 2011, and stayed on for years after that. Freda Bikowsky, who went on to direct the “global jihad” unit, married Michael Scheuer in 2014 (she now goes by Alfreda Scheuer). Scheuer, meanwhile, was eased out of Alec Station in 1999 and left the agency in 2004, after growing more and more outspoken about the Iraq War and other issues. He went on to create a blog where he has expressed admiration for QAnon, claimed that the 2020 election was stolen, supported mob violence against Black Lives Matter protesters, and called for the killing of journalists and Democratic politicians, among other extremist views. (“He bears no resemblance to the man I knew,” Bennett told me.)

That these women’s warnings—and many other warnings—were not acted on owes to many factors. With any failure as big as 9/11 comes hindsight bias and I-told-you-sos. But there’s no question that early strategic warnings, and later tactical ones, were made by women who worked in an un-prestigious, discounted unit, and who had their ears to the ground.

After the attack, Tenet demanded that analysts, with their granular knowledge, be included in high-level briefings. When the hunt for bin Laden was reinvigorated nearly 10 years after 9/11, a team of targeters—strikingly female—proved key to the mission’s success. Whatever else it is, the CIA is a workplace, one with institutional biases, turf wars, bureaucracy, and, yes, sexism. When the stakes are so high, those dynamics can have history-making consequences.

This article has been adapted from The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA.

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