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COLUMN ONE : The CIA's Dirty Little Secret : A female agent's lawsuit has opened a window to the frat-house culture among male spies. Blatant sexism, alcohol abuse appear to have long been tolerated, but officials vow change.

October 10, 1994|JOHN M. BRODER and RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — According to accounts reaching Washington in the late 1980s, the Central Intelligence Agency station in Jamaica was a menagerie of misfits, incompetents and twisted personalities--an overstaffed way station for time-servers no one else wanted.

The deputy station chief reportedly assaulted his wife repeatedly, once throttling her until she passed out. Another agent was cited for getting drunk in a hotel bar and screaming out her rage against the CIA. A third allegedly threatened to kill his own security guards.

These sordid details leap out of a sex-discrimination lawsuit filed in August by the CIA agent--the first female chief of station in Latin America--assigned to clean up the Jamaica operation. The agency, declining to comment while her suit is pending, has neither confirmed nor challenged her account.

The officer, known in court documents as Jane Doe Thompson but identified by numerous sources as Janine M. Brookner, arrived in the Jamaican capital of Kingston in 1989 with a sterling reputation for prowess as a spy and for personal probity.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 12, 1994 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 6 Metro Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
CIA staffing--Because of erroneous figures supplied by the Central Intelligence Agency, The Times reported incorrectly Monday that 20% of the agency's station chiefs were women as of last month. The CIA said Tuesday that only 8.4% of the station chiefs are women.

She immediately began to try to assert control over the mess she inherited. She tried counseling her wayward charges, wrote warnings into their performance appraisals and finally reported them to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

What happened next shocked most who had known Brookner, 53, during her stainless 21-year career at the CIA.

In what her backers described as a bureaucratic covert operation, the spies of the Jamaica station turned the tables on their boss, demanding that she be investigated by the CIA's inspector general.

They portrayed her as a drunk and a sexpot. They accused her of cheating on her overtime slips and of misusing a CIA helicopter assigned to Jamaica for anti-drug operations. Today she is a discredited spy doing make-work in a windowless cubicle at CIA headquarters.

While the courts will ultimately decide the merits of the Brookner case, the episode has raised a larger question of whether the CIA, as she charges, is marked by a "pervasive atmosphere of machismo and sexual discrimination."

Interviews with current and former CIA officials suggest there is substantiation for Brookner's claim that the Directorate of Operations, the true heart of the CIA, is a male-run enclave whose very secrecy has insulated it from the larger society it is meant to serve.

Critics charge that the agency indulges and promotes hard-drinking, skirt-chasing male agents. They cite the case of convicted traitor Aldrich H. Ames, who was promoted into sensitive positions despite being--by his own description--a "falling-down drunk."

The officials say Brookner's case is surprising only because she rose so high and fell so hard, and that scores of other women have been methodically thwarted in their efforts to rise through agency ranks.

Lawyers representing female clandestine service officers are threatening a class-action lawsuit accusing the agency of systematic discrimination. Rod Boggs of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights said there is an egregious pattern of gender bias at the CIA. "I've been doing these kinds of cases--both in government and private industry--for more than 20 years, and I've never seen such clear-cut evidence of discrimination," Boggs said.

But the case has narrowed from several hundred potential plaintiffs to about 50 or 60 female officers, not all of whom are willing to go public with their complaints for fear of retaliation. Observers inside and outside the agency say they expect the action to be settled before it reaches court.

CIA officials deny that sexual harassment and discrimination are rampant at the agency and are part of its culture.

Yet the CIA's own classified "glass-ceiling study" conducted in 1991 found almost 50% of female officers said they had been sexually harassed. Most said they had not reported the incidents to male superiors because they believed to do so would be career suicide.

The study described the CIA as an "adverse work environment" for women and said reprisals against women "seem to go unchecked."

In her suit, Brookner said she had been subjected to unwanted sexual advances from male bosses in virtually every assignment she held in the United States and abroad.

The Brookner and Ames cases also opened a window on another bit of agency dirty laundry--endemic alcohol abuse, particularly at the CIA's foreign stations. Current and former officials--some very senior--say heavy drinking has been tolerated, even when it threatens security and operations, in a frat-house culture that appears to condone virtually any offense except snitching on colleagues.

Even when a pattern of alcohol abuse is widely known, as it was in Ames' case, the agency appears loath to move against one of its own. It worries about the effect on morale and fears that disciplinary action could push a spiteful officer over to the other side.

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