The CIA's Real Drone Queens

The CIA's Real Drone Queens

By Toby Harnden - October 21, 2014

When President Barack Obama went to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to be briefed on drone operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he was taken aback by the number of female spies directing the agency’s secret killing programme.

A week later, the CIA’s top expert on Pakistan was summoned to the Oval Office. She was strikingly attractive in her stiletto heels. “You don’t look like a Pakistan expert,” the president told her, breaking into a grin.

Obama was mistaken: the expert was typical of the new generation of CIA officers. Many are women in their thirties with a decade or more of experience in hunting down terrorists and vaporising them with Hellfire missiles.

The dilemmas confronting “the sisterhood”, as they are known to colleagues, is central to the fourth season of the hit drama Homeland. In the first episode of the new season, shown on Showtime and Channel 4, Carrie Mathison, the bipolar CIA officer, orders an airstrike on a farmhouse in Pakistan. Afterwards, her staff give her a birthday cake iced with the words “drone queen”.

It then turns out that dozens of women and children at a wedding party have been killed. Carrie hides the truth.

Obama has hailed Homeland as “a terrific psychological study”. Claire Danes, who has won two Golden Globes for her portrayal of Carrie, says a “senior woman in the CIA” is the basis for her character. Dining with the officer, she was struck by her “adventurous spirit” and candour, and by how quietly she spoke.

Some at the CIA view Carrie as a composite character, much like Maya, an intelligence analyst in the film Zero Dark Thirty who is relentless in her determination to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.

Others regard Carrie as a work of imagination encapsulating some of the qualities and flaws of real agency women.

The CIA is now almost 50% female. Its director is a man but the next three posts below him are filled by women. They are instrumental in waging the CIA’s anti-terrorist war, playing a disproportionate role in some of the most lethal and morally ambiguous tasks of an organisation that has long been regarded as a bastion of outdated machismo.

More enlightened employment practices have contributed to this. But could it be, as some senior intelligence officers argue, that the true-life drone queens are simply better than men at stalking terrorists and deciding when and how they should die?

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Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission. 

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