What’s it really like to walk into a room and debrief a terrorist who has agreed to work with the CIA? Pretty intimidating.
These are not small matters: they are issues of life and death. This is a high-stakes game of manipulation and control. Let’s be honest about the guy you have to work with: He is no Boy Scout. He is a member of a terrorist organization who has agreed to work against the members of his cell. He’s either bold enough, committed enough, or dumb enough to work against his terrorist associates, people who have no qualms getting rid of double agents or snitches suspected of working for the enemy. He goes one way today, but he could very well go the other way tomorrow.
When you imagine a lying, manipulative, and violent insurgent, you might not picture someone like me going up against him: a smiley, outgoing, southern woman. But that’s what I loved! He didn’t expect me to walk in the door, either, but there I was—my friendly, non-threatening self—to see what kind of intelligence I could get out of him. The best intelligence officers are the ones who know how they are perceived by others—what physical characteristics or perceptions the other guy will have about them. Those assumptions may be completely incorrect, but perception is reality in intelligence work.
So you play the cards you’ve been dealt: I knew I would be perceived as a pretty girl. It didn’t actually matter if I was good-looking or not, these conservative, Salafi Muslim men (one of the most conservative groups in Islam) rarely deal with women outside of the home that are not shrouded in black and escorted by male members of the family. An opportunity not only to see me, but to interact with me was a very exciting prospect. On top of that, these men were products of the sexually repressed culture of the Middle East, and they were unable to get their heads out of the gutter once they realized they would be dealing with a female. Whether I liked it or not, I was a sexual object to flirt with, not an intelligence officer to respect. I wasn’t starting at zero, I was below zero. I was at an extreme disadvantage. I had a lot of territory to make up as a woman, and I had to do it fast.
It was up to me to realize this and to change the terms of the engagement. Luckily, I had spent many years living in and studying the Middle East before I ever worked for the government, so I was well-prepared. Here was the strategy: I had to demonstrate immediately that I was an intelligent woman. I had to find ways to demonstrate my knowledge of the Middle East by peppering my speech with Arabic phrases. I worked in references to the guy’s village, country or culture to show him that I cared about the details, and I was well-versed in topics important to him.
Once I started talking, I could see him taking it all in: evaluating and assessing me. I could see it in his eyes when he realized that I did not have the morals of a prostitute—at that point, he understood that I was quick, witty, smart, and most importantly: professional. In just a few minutes, I had forced him to cross the threshold and deal with me in a completely different way than when I first walked in the door. Don’t get me wrong. These guys are slick willies. The terrorist sources would still try to flirt. They would hold onto my hand too long while shaking it. They would linger too long when looking into my eyes. They would try to stand too close to me. But that’s OK, I expected each one of those moves and dealt with them as they came.
With a great deal of tenacity, motivation, and a determination to succeed, I had turned a huge disadvantage into an advantage. I had used my appearance and southern charm to disarm my adversary. My easy-going but professional demeanor belied the high levels of emotional intelligence that gave me the street smarts I needed to calculate each and every move. I put the chess pieces exactly where I wanted them on the board.
As a result, the source worked harder than ever to please me, impress me, and make me happy. Many times, I was able to get more information out of the source than his regular handler because I had triumphed over the elephant in the room—the fact that I was female operating in a man’s world, playing the game of espionage with al-Qa’ida operatives or Ansar al-Sunnah insurgents. It was the ultimate poker game where I didn’t let on the fact that I was playing them back. That’s the twist … and the fun. Once the intelligence started to flow and I was getting the details I needed, I knew I had smashed through the proverbial glass ceiling.
Have you ever been in a situation where you were severely misjudged or handicapped by someone’s perceptions of you? Were you able to turn things upside down and win/succeed/get what you wanted despite the challenge? If so, how did you do it? How did you turn a disadvantage into an advantage? I would LOVE to hear your comments!
All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the CIA or any other U.S. Government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or Agency endorsement of the author’s views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.
Photo: ©Michele Rigby Assad