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Spy Vs. Spies

Janine Brookner Was on the CIA Career Track Until the Old-Boy Network Tried to Derail Her. She Hadn't Done Anything Wrong. So, (Surprise!) She Fought Back, and the Agency Had to Pay Big Time.

July 21, 1996|DAVID WISE | David Wise, who lives in Washington, is the author of "Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million."

Well," said Jerry Gruner, "there's Jamaica." Sitting there in Gruner's office at the Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters in Langley, Va., CIA officer Janine Brookner knew exactly what the suave chief of the Latin American Division was offering her: Jamaica was the pits, the CIA station from hell. After 20 years as a successful CIA spy, Brookner was battling for a coveted position as a station chief. Only a handful of women have managed to reach that level in the closed, macho club that is the agency's Directorate of Operations, its clandestine arm. But Jamaica had a notorious reputation as the agency's dumping ground, a dead-end post for misfits and losers. Brookner knew how bad it was. Reports had filtered back to Langley of wife-swapping, group gropes, heavy drinking and other goings-on at the Jamaica station. Even aside from the low morale and terrible reputation of the Jamaica station, Kingston was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The CIA's officers, as well as other American embassy employees, lived in barred, fortress-like houses with 24-hour armed security guards. So Brookner had no illusions about what was being offered. A job as purser on the Titanic. The Jamaica station--and everyone in the CIA knew it--was a disaster. "I'll take it," she said.

*

Janine Brookner did not know it then, but her decision was the start of a Kafkaesque ordeal that would end with her career in tatters and her reputation nearly destroyed. In time, the agency that she had loyally served for 23 years would attempt, like a crocodile, to eat its young. What Brookner says happened to her in the CIA amounts to another black mark for an agency already battered by a multitude of troubles, including the Aldrich Ames spy case, the abrupt resignation of CIA Director R. James Woolsey and scandals in Guatemala and France. But Brookner's story--as detailed in a lawsuit she brought against the agency and in interviews with participants--casts perhaps the harshest light on the culture of the CIA, on the inner workings of an incompetent bureaucracy run amok and unable or unwilling to admit a horrendous error. The CIA usually does not comment on its activities. The agency declined to make available for interviews any of the officials and officers involved in the Brookner case.

Janine Okun was born into a middle-class family in Syracuse, N.Y. Her mother was a real estate broker, her father the president of a labor union at the Syracuse Post-Standard. Married at 18, she had a son, Steven, while in college, and kept her married name, Brookner, after she was divorced at age 22. She earned a master's degree in Russian studies at New York University and joined the CIA in 1968. She was sent to the Farm, the agency's school for spies near Williamsburg, Va., for the usual training in agent recruitment and handling, surveillance, secret writing and other espionage tradecraft.

In 1969, the CIA sent her to the Philippines. "She was amazingly successful," George Kalaris, her station chief, recalled. "She was one of the best officers I had."

In Manila she met Colin Thompson, then 35, a fellow case officer with a dry wit who had grown up in New York and gone to Yale. In 1973, Brookner and Thompson were sent to Thailand by the agency. They were married in Bangkok that year and divorced in 1979 but remain close friends.

After a three-year tour in Caracas, Brookner, then in her 40s, was sent to Manhattan. For four years she was chief of the CIA's United Nations branch, in charge of recruiting Soviet diplomats to spy for the United States.

Brookner was itching to get back overseas and to become a chief of station. Although women are rarely promoted to the agency's top echelon, Brookner knew that Latin America offered a good shot; it had medium-size stations where she might just have a chance. She returned to headquarters, where, in 1988, Jerry Gruner offered her Jamaica.

Brookner was looking around for a deputy to serve with her in Jamaica, and Gerald P. Hamilton was interested. Then in his late thirties, Hamilton was a personable officer in the Caribbean branch. Because he had a low-key manner, Brookner felt that he would get along well with the Jamaicans. The fact that Hamilton was an African American, Brookner thought, might also be an advantage. She went to Gruner, who approved her choice.

In July of 1989, Brookner arrived in Jamaica for a two-year tour, the first woman ever to be appointed a station chief in Latin America. The CIA station occupied an upper floor of the American embassy in Kingston.

Jamaica was the CIA's premier listening post in the Caribbean, and Brookner commanded a 20-person station. She had a helicopter--for use against drug traffickers--and a variety of weapons at her disposal. Brookner did not carry a gun, but most of her case officers did, especially if they had to go out at night, when the risk was greatest of being mugged or shot.

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