Secret Weapons

By Lake, Eli | Newsweek, September 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

Secret Weapons


Lake, Eli, Newsweek


Byline: Eli Lake

Navy Seal 'Mark Owen' revealed that the intelligence analyst who led his team to Osama was a woman--and there are plenty more like her. The supersmart targeters of the CIA.

The new unauthorized, firsthand account of the Navy SEAL operation that killed Osama bin Laden makes clear that the mission's success relied in large part on a CIA analyst named in the book as "Jen." In an intelligence profession known for uncertainty, Jen--who had been tracking bin Laden's location for years--assured the SEALs she had no doubt that he resided in a walled compound less than a half a mile from Pakistan's military academy in Abbottabad. Before the raid, she briefed the SEALs on what they should expect to encounter in Abbottabad--down to details like whether a door inside the compound would open inwardly or outwardly. (She got it right.)

Jen is a new kind of CIA officer: smart, self-assured--and female. It wasn't always like this. In its early years, the agency kept women away from the challenging work of espionage. Often employees with two X chromosomes were relegated to the steno pool, or midlevel analysis work at best.

Not anymore. Jen is a "targeter," an analyst who pores over grainy drone footage and sorts through phone intercepts and other fragments of intelligence to find the exact location of terrorists, drug traffickers, or arms dealers. Since Sept. 11, the CIA has come under heavy, and often negative, political scrutiny. But during this same period, the agency has quietly perfected the art and science of the modern manhunt by training a generation of targeters like Jen. As opposed to the area specialists who analyze a country's government or economy, the targeters (sometimes called "targeteers") almost always focus on one person or one group. They work in the same units as the case officers and special forces teams that act on their analysis. And in recent years, according to Jose Rodriguez, a former deputy director of operations at the CIA, the majority of targeters have been women.

Indeed, the CIA's first unit devoted to tracking al Qaeda, known as Alec Station, hired women analysts almost exclusively in the 1990s. Mike Scheuer, the first chief of Alec Station, says that when he left the post in 1999, all of his 14 targeters were women. He also says the first captures of senior al Qaeda leaders after Sept. 11 were the result of investigative work done by these women. "If I could have put out a sign on the door that said 'No men need apply,' I would have done it," he says.

One of the most famous targeters in recent history was Jennifer Matthews, the head of a CIA team that tracked a senior al Qaeda operational planner known as Abu Zubaydah to a safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan, according to Joby Warrick's book The Triple Agent. In the book, Warrick captures the hard choices a top-flight intelligence officer has to make to balance spy work and family. While serving in the CIA's station in Khost, Afghanistan, Matthews spent Christmas Day in 2009 with her children back in Fredericksburg, Va., through a Skype video chat. After her children opened their presents, her son and youngest child asked, "Mommy, can you show us your gun?" according to Warrick's account. She showed him her pistol and rifle. Then she was off to the mess hall on the base for a Christmas meal with her fellow officers. Five days later, Matthews was killed when a Jordanian physician she thought was a spy for the CIA blew himself up at a meeting with her at the Khost station. "She was among the best," says Rodriguez.

Like Matthews, Gina Bennett--a senior CIA analyst who authored one of the agency's first warnings about al Qaeda in 1993 and who later a wrote a book called National Security Mom--has sometimes had to participate in family holidays from a remote location. "One of the best Mother's Days I've ever had was when my kids had our traditional chocolate-chip pancakes for Mother's Day breakfast and I attended via a laptop in the dining room," she says. …

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