Michele Rigby Assad Author of Breaking Cover
As a former undercover CIA officer, I often hear this question from women: Is the CIA portrayed accurately in the television show Homeland? What about the leading character, Carrie Mathison—is she like a real CIA officer?
What I think women really want to know is whether the character they identify with is authentic. Because if Carrie, with her relatable strengths and vulnerabilities, can do it, then maybe we could too. Entertaining such a wild possibility transforms our understanding of how our God-given strengths can be used in ways that we never imagined.
When I first walked through the doors of the CIA, I was overcome by intimidation. I wasn’t sure why I got hired for this otherworldly job when I felt so average, so everyday… so normal. I trusted God with my life, and he had clearly opened this door for me, but I was not certain what I could contribute in such a place. It turns out God knew exactly what I was capable of achieving and where I could have the greatest impact. It took me years to appreciate this and realize that not only was I good enough, but the traits I had classified as “soft skills” were what made me exceptional in the field.
I’m here to tell you that not only are women capable of intelligence work and other challenging and unorthodox jobs, they are hardwired for them. That’s right. Women are brimming with the attributes necessary to execute missions against terrorists, drug dealers, weapons proliferators, and rogue states. They are uniquely qualified to live a high-stakes life.
Below are four reasons why women make incredible intelligence officers — reasons that can change the way we perceive the “everyday”, God-given strengths of a woman.
1. To execute safe and productive operations, you must be an experienced multitasker.
If extreme multitasking were an Olympic sport, women would take home the gold. Every. Single. Day. For example, we can answer the phone while cooking dinner, starting a grocery list, helping kids with homework, and setting the table—all at the same time. For whatever reason, God wired our brains to easily manage multiple activities concurrently, such as running a busy office or juggling the daily demands of an active family.
Handling sources is not that different. When you run an agent meeting, you have to execute a surveillance run to pick up the source. Once he’s in the car, you work on rapport, debrief him, take notes, ask follow-up questions, keep an eye out for hostile surveillance, give instructions, evaluate the information, and try not to get into a car accident. You have a thousand balls in the air, and you have to appear calm and collected while juggling them all.
2. Empathy is critical to building trust.
The job of a spy is often misunderstood. Instead of advanced marksmanship and kung fu skills, the most important aspect of the job is the ability to successfully interact with other human beings.
When you recruit a source to give you sensitive data, he is putting his life in danger. If his information is leaked and he is identified as a CIA agent, he could be killed. Therefore, you have to work diligently to build a connection with the source, even if it appears that you have little in common.
As a counterterrorism officer, I regularly debriefed penetrations of terrorist groups, many of whom harbored radical ideology and had previously carried out lethal attacks against their enemies. Understanding their backgrounds and motivations required a significant amount of emotional intelligence to communicate in a way that was meaningful for them. They had to walk away from our meeting thinking, “She’s smart. She gets me. I want to work with her.”
The more the source trusts their CIA handler, the more intelligence they will give that officer. The more intelligence you acquire, the better your chance of stopping terrorist attacks from occurring. I might not like or agree with my sources, but I had to build a relationship with each one, regardless of his ideology, background, intelligence level, or personality. Empathy afforded me the wisdom I needed to engage and work with a wide variety of people.
That’s why women have such an advantage in the CIA. Women seem to have empathy hardwired into their very being, making them able to “accurately perceive the internal frame of reference of others.” We quickly intuit what people are feeling, recognizing what others need even before they articulate it. Empathy is the vehicle by which intelligence officers bridge the massive cultural, religious, linguistic, and political gaps that often exist between them and their sources.
3. Intuition is irreplaceable.
I believe that women are great purveyors of intuition. If you want to get a fun conversation started, ask a woman whether she has ever had a sixth sense or gut instinct about something that turned out to be correct. This God-given ability to size someone up quickly, before the conscious brain picks up on verbal and nonverbal cues, can make the difference between a mediocre intelligence officer and a really effective one.
Obtaining intelligence is not hard. But sifting through the flood of information to find the important stuff is extremely difficult. This is because the field is full of liars, fabricators, manipulators, and double agents vying for the CIA’s time and attention. Thankfully, intuition steps in when you’re not even trying. It is often the first indicator that there’s a problem with a case. I encountered numerous situations where I had a gut feeling about a source that I was later able to prove. I learned to honor that intuitive sense that something wasn’t right, even when I could not immediately articulate the reasons I felt that way.
The more intuitive you are, the more effective you will be at identifying counterintelligence flags. When we don’t catch problems quickly, we squander time, resources, and the goodwill of intelligence partners, and we risk precious lives when we run down false leads in war zones and other dangerous locales. Intuition may be one of the greatest yet least understood skills that we have in intelligence.
4. The element of surprise can be quite useful.
Let’s face it: Female officers are still a bit of a surprise to many of our sources. This is particularly true in the counterterrorism realm. If I had a dollar for every time a source registered shock when I walked into the debriefing room . . .
A lot of negative assumptions were made about me, but I learned to use them to my advantage. If the suspected double agent didn’t put up any defenses, because he thought I’d be gullible or lacking in intellect, then great! Before he knew it, I’d used my debriefing skills and ability to read body language to detect issues that he didn’t think I’d notice.
When a terrorist does not expect a woman to be smart or capable, she holds all the cards. It’s the ultimate poker game. We can use our attributes, intelligence, and personality quirks to win the game before the source even realizes we’re playing.
While I know many intuitive, empathetic men who are also great multitaskers (and amazing intelligence officers), women seem to naturally excel in these areas. Yet they are unaware of how amazing they are. I’m hoping that women come to realize that the skills that seem “normal and everyday” to them are actually highly valued in the intelligence sector and other challenging fields. Soft skills they are not. Superhero skills? I certainly think so!
Michele Rigby Assad is a former undercover officer in the National Clandestine Service of the US Central Intelligence Agency. Trained as a counterterrorism specialist, Michele served her country for 10 years, working in Iraq and other secret Middle Eastern locations. Upon retirement from active service, Michele and her husband, Joseph (also a former agent), began leading teams to aid Christian refugees, including a rescue mission to Iraq that was featured on ABC’s 20/20. Michele holds a master’s degree in contemporary Arab studies from Georgetown University. Today she serves as an international management consultant, splitting her time between the Middle East, Florida, and Washington, DC