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The Ladies Who Noticed 9/11 Coming

The Ladies Who Noticed 9/11 Coming


One day towards the top of the twentieth century, John Rizzo, a profession lawyer on the Central Intelligence Company, discovered himself chatting with Jack Downing—a former Marine and stalwart Chilly Warrior who had been introduced out of retirement to supervise the clandestine service.

The 2 males have been speaking about an analyst named Michael Scheuer, the cerebral however polarizing chief of a staff targeted on a terrorist group referred to as al-Qaeda. Skeptical that Scheuer was as much as the job, Downing introduced up a perceived weak point of his workers. “The one individuals who work for him are women,” he scoffed.

It was a small second, however one Rizzo by no means forgot. “I bear in mind him saying women,” Rizzo instructed me in an interview earlier than his loss of life in 2021. Satirically, Downing, who additionally died in 2021, was seen as comparatively supportive of ladies on the CIA.

Again in 2018, I met with a bunch of CIA historians to speak about girls’s roles and experiences on the company. The historians pointed to the putting variety of girls engaged in a number of key missions, chief amongst them the monitoring of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, each earlier than and after the 9/11 assaults; Scheuer’s staff of “women” performed a key half. Over three years of e book analysis, I interviewed a couple of hundred feminine officers on the company, together with a minimum of a half dozen who have been concerned within the bin Laden effort—a few of whom had not spoken beforehand about their work, or not extensively—in addition to lots of their male colleagues. What turned clear in these conversations was that most of the girls who charted al-Qaeda’s rise felt that their work was undervalued or ignored and that their gender was a part of the equation.

The cover of Liza Mundy's new book
This text has been tailored from Mundy’s new e book.

For many years, the CIA, based in 1947, had been a boys’ membership. The company made a follow of hiring girls as clerks, record-keepers, and secretaries, however not inserting them in high jobs, significantly those who concerned spying. Based on a collection of studies performed in the course of the Chilly Warfare a long time, the view amongst many officers at Langley was that girls have been extra emotional than males, much less prone to be taken significantly overseas, and unable to succeed on the very important spycraft of operating brokers—that’s, recruiting overseas nationals to share state secrets and techniques. When the company’s equal-opportunity workplace investigated a discrimination criticism introduced by a feminine officer within the late Nineteen Seventies, the ensuing report discovered “unwitting, subliminal, unconscious discriminatory procedures which have grow to be institutionalized by follow.” The company settled with the complainant, however then, within the mid-Nineteen Nineties, discovered itself settling two main sex-discrimination lawsuits introduced by girls within the clandestine service.

Sexism additionally existed within the analytic directorate, the big cadre of officers who take what the spies acquire and make conclusions and predictions. A 1992 “glass ceiling” examine commissioned by the CIA discovered that girls made up practically 40 % of the skilled workforce however solely 10 % of the elite Senior Intelligence Service. Ladies usually discovered the headquarters setting “uncomfortable and alienating,” the examine mentioned, whereas white males tended to be given “career-making assignments.”

This historical past helps clarify the dismissiveness that the largely feminine group monitoring al-Qaeda perceived. For greater than a decade starting within the mid-Eighties, the rising self-discipline of counterterrorism was a low-priority mission, which is one purpose so many ladies have been shunted into it. However though they have been properly positioned to identify the earliest indicators of al-Qaeda’s rise, they usually had hassle getting their voices heard after they sounded warnings. That the male analyst they have been most carefully related to—Scheuer—was contentious within the constructing didn’t assist.

Not all the ladies have been heroes; the staff had flaws simply as any staff of males would. They didn’t all the time make themselves nice to colleagues or bosses. They didn’t all the time agree on the method, strategies, or degree of aggression warranted towards terrorists and their leaders. After 9/11, some have been as vulnerable as males to the excesses of the Warfare on Terror. However for years beforehand they endeavored to make identified {that a} dispersed group of fighters—whereas missing a proper navy or high-tech weaponry—was able to turning America’s personal expertise towards itself, and absolutely supposed to take action.

Numerous investigations have examined why america didn’t see 9/11 coming, and the reasons are many. However one issue these assessments don’t absolutely seize is that some analysts did know that such an assault might occur, and that most of the earliest, most tenacious, and most perceptive of them have been feminine, in an establishment that had lengthy underestimated girls and their work.

One of the primary officers to concentrate to al-Qaeda was a twentysomething analyst named Cindy Storer, sharp-eyed, good at math, a lover of puzzles. In 1989, Storer joined the desk liable for Afghanistan, which for 10 years had been occupied by Soviet invaders, with the CIA mainly operating the resistance. The 12 months she arrived on that account, the Soviet Military was defeated; two years later, the Soviet Union fell. Afghanistan, for many officers, pale into unimportance. “We walked away from it,” William Webster, then the CIA director, later admitted.

Storer, nevertheless, stayed on the beat, watching as tribal factions fought for management of the nation. She started noticing one thing else: Arab fighters who had traveled from the Center East, Africa, and Asia to assist repel the Soviet occupiers have been now fanning out internationally. In Afghanistan, they have been often called “overseas fighters” or “Afghan Arabs.” They referred to as themselves mujahideen: Islamic warriors pursuing jihad, or holy struggle, towards infidel nations. They have been violent, anti-Western, and rising in quantity.

Storer started educating herself the way to do terrorism evaluation, a brand new talent that entailed making sense of fragments reminiscent of journey information and intercepted conversations amongst fighters utilizing code names. Sifting by way of transcripts, cables, and Arab-language information articles, she got down to observe which fighters have been being influenced by which individuals and teams. As she talked to colleagues and executives, nevertheless, it appeared to her that they minimized the risk at a time—the “peace dividend” period—when CIA sources have been shrinking and desks have been aggressive and short-staffed. “No person wished to listen to about it,” she instructed me.

A minimum of, not till she met with a extra senior Close to East and South Asia analyst, Barbara Sude. Sude was an ideal instance of how girls on the CIA had been funneled: She’d earned her PhD within the mid-Nineteen Seventies and utilized to the company on a whim. On the time, girls have been largely being employed as secretaries, and the company had a particular check with a pink cowl, which included questions like: Would you quite spend time placing on make-up or go with out? Upon being employed, she was routed to an offshoot unit—the Overseas Broadcast Info Service—the place she labored for a decade earlier than making her means into an analyst job at CIA headquarters.

An knowledgeable in medieval Islamic thought, Sude turned her consideration to political Islam and, at Storer’s suggestion, added Islamic extremists to her portfolio, together with these with hyperlinks to terrorism. The 2 analysts studied illicit monetary transactions, nongovernmental organizations to see which of them have been diverting donations for nefarious functions.

Quickly, a 3rd girl, Gina Bennett, joined their efforts. After Bennett graduated from school in 1988, she utilized to the CIA. She didn’t get an interview, so she took a job as a clerk-typist on the State Division. She was shortly promoted to the division’s Bureau of Intelligence and Analysis, often called the INR, the place she labored as a junior analyst within the terrorism “watch workplace,” which fielded cables about explosions and threats. Months into her new job, on December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. Practically 300 folks died in a terrorist bombing attributed to Libyan brokers.

The killing of civilians—college students, households, kids—was horrific, and Bennett, like the opposite girls, sensed a pivot: Terrorism was rising and altering type. From her desk in Foggy Backside, she started to review the movement of overseas fighters leaving Afghanistan and going into Chechnya, Kashmir, the Philippines, surfacing in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Burma.

Bennett, pregnant together with her first baby, started engaged on a memo for the INR’s day by day bulletin, a compendium of intelligence for diplomats and the national-security group. In early 1993, she was ending a draft when her water broke. Twenty-four hours later, she underwent an emergency C-section. Just a few days later, the telephone rang by her hospital mattress; a automobile bomb had gone off in a parking storage of the World Commerce Heart in New York Metropolis. “Your folks did this!” her supervisor exclaimed, that means that she’d had her eye on the fitting goal. Bennett was again to work inside weeks of giving start.

Her stunningly farsighted memo “The Wandering Mujahidin: Armed and Harmful” ran within the August 21–22, 1993, weekend version of the INR’s bulletin. The identical community of donors that had “funneled cash, provides, and manpower to complement the Afghan mujahidin,” Bennett wrote, “is now contributing skilled fighters to militant Islamic teams worldwide.” The fighters excelled at guerrilla warfare, might journey simply, and had technological know-how. “The notion that the U.S. has an anti-Islamic overseas coverage agenda raises the chance that U.S. pursuits more and more will grow to be targets,” she warned.

At a time when the identify Osama bin Laden had appeared nearly nowhere within the Western press, Bennett named the person to watch out for. “Amongst personal donors to the brand new technology [of fighters], Usama Bin Ladin is especially well-known for his spiritual zeal and monetary largesse,” she wrote.

Having crossed paths with Sude on the CIA, Bennett invited her to affix an off-the-cuff interagency group learning the fighters. Sude invited Storer, and the ladies teamed up with a handful of officers from State, the CIA, the FBI, and the FAA, who met in borrowed places of work, sharing papers, insights, and analysis.

Storer created a slide deck that confirmed the place the fighters have been transferring and used symbols to indicate what they did: Set up an workplace. Arrange a coaching camp. Make a financial institution deposit. Blow one thing up. One other member of the group, the State Division analyst Lyndsay Howard, invited Storer to share her insights with folks larger up. Round late 1993 or early 1994, Howard went door to door to main bureaus at State and begged colleagues to ship someone senior to Storer’s briefing. The group listened to the presentation, however when Howard adopted them out, she heard two or three folks strolling down the hall laughing, she instructed me. They appeared to suppose Storer was exaggerating, ginning up a brand new enemy to justify the CIA’s continued existence.

At Langley, Storer might barely get the risk acknowledged. In February 1993, her staff despatched an merchandise in regards to the overseas fighters, authored by two colleagues, to the editors of the President’s Every day Transient, the compendium of pressing gadgets that’s introduced each morning to the “First Buyer” within the White Home—Invoice Clinton, on the time. The editors declined to incorporate the merchandise, Storer instructed me. After the WTC bomb exploded, an editor referred to as and requested what her workplace knew about “Afghan Arabs,” she recalled. She recommended he learn the PDB merchandise that had been sitting within the drawer for 2 weeks.

Eventually Storer and Sude each discovered their technique to the CIA’s counterterrorist heart, a distinct segment unit created within the Eighties to answer hijackings and assaults within the Center East. By 1995, the company was turning into extra cognizant of the risk posed by bin Laden. A small “digital station” was created throughout the heart, initially to look at his monetary dealings. Mike Scheuer headed the outfit—dubbed “Alec Station,” after his younger son—and recruited a staff of largely girls analysts. Scheuer, by his personal description, was the second or third choose for that job, which was not ardently sought by bold colleagues who perceived that the forms, total, nonetheless had not absolutely embraced the mission.

The hardworking Scheuer grasped early on the magnitude of bin Laden’s success in cajoling different extremist leaders to come back collectively in a multiethnic effort to kill Individuals and drive america out of the Center East. However Scheuer was additionally aggrieved, contemptuous of the political institution, vulnerable to go after his critics, and incessantly at odds with the FBI, from whom Alec Station generally hoarded data (and the opposite means round). “He was all the time slightly nuts,” as one officer put it, “however he was our nut.” Storer and Sude every did stints working alongside Scheuer’s staff, although not as a part of it.

“I had monumental respect for the ladies who labored for me,” Scheuer instructed me, describing them as “consultants at trivialities, placing items of knowledge collectively or pondering, ‘Hey, two months in the past I learn one thing about this,’ they usually’d return and discover it. They didn’t spend a lot time at throughout the water cooler telling struggle tales.”

Having a feminine workers made it tougher for Scheuer to get buy-in throughout the bigger group, nevertheless. Operations officers scoffed at his staff. “What’s his workers? It’s all feminine,” the ops officer Glenn Carle is quoted observing within the journalist Peter Bergen’s e book Manhunt. “It was simply extensively mentioned on the time that it’s a bunch of chicks,” Carle continued. “So, the attitude was frankly condescending and dismissive.”

Scheuer’s staff was not given its personal ops officers to gather data abroad, so he tapped his studies officers—a historically feminine job that entailed disseminating cables—to wheedle supplies from colleagues on different desks. One other Alec Station staff member, Jennifer Matthews, helped create a brand new subject—focusing on—that entailed discovering terrorists the place they hid. Working together with her was Alfreda Bikowsky, often called Freda, who mixed a steel-trap reminiscence with a stressed method and an aggressive method that a few of the different girls, together with Storer, generally argued with. Darrell Blocker, a CIA officer who labored with Bikowsky years later and saluted her focus and competence, described her persona to me as “not heat and fuzzy.” When Bikowsky got here to Alec Station within the late Nineteen Nineties, as chief of operations, she set about increasing what “operations” might imply: not simply recruiting overseas nationals to go secrets and techniques but in addition “determining who it’s that we needs to be in search of, who they’re linked to,” she instructed me. It was, she mentioned, “manhunting.” (Bikowsky later drew controversy when she participated within the post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation” program, working as an analyst vetting detainee assertions, and served as an architect of the company’s efforts to defend what was condemned by many as torture.)

Gina Bennett, at Scheuer’s urging, left the State Division and joined the CIA to work on the al-Qaeda mission. Over the following few years, Alec Station grew to about two dozen folks, and remained 80 % feminine. The ladies didn’t all the time get alongside. These working for Scheuer, or a few of them, exhibited ferocity and suspicion. Some, Storer felt, regarded outsiders, even Storer herself, as not essentially entitled to know what they knew.

Nonetheless, diving into the “troves” of recordsdata that the Alec staff collected, Storer had an epiphany second: “I’m like, holy crap, it’s a terrorist group.” Bin Laden’s fighters weren’t a unfastened federation however a forms, full with a payroll and franchises. But even within the counterterrorist heart, colleagues on different accounts remained uncertain that scattered fighters might pose an organized risk on the extent of Hezbollah or Hamas. As Storer put it, many officers regarded the terrorists as “ragheads who lived in a cave,” when the truth is the leaders have been “medical doctors and attorneys and navy officers who knew their shit.”

The company’s forms introduced one other drawback. Many of the categorized studies the CIA produces are “company merchandise,” which implies that anybody with a stake in a memo or paper should signal onto it earlier than it’s printed. Consensus should be secured, desk by desk, and that’s particularly onerous when you’re feminine, junior, and laboring in an obscure unit. Round 1997, Storer mentioned, she got down to write a definitive paper with “the whole lot you wished to find out about bin Laden and al-Qaeda.” The draft was 60 pages lengthy. However she “couldn’t get different desks to agree,” she instructed me. A supervisor wished her to interrupt it into small components, she recalled. Storer mentioned the total model was by no means printed.

By mid-1998, Storer had lengthy been warning colleagues that bin Laden’s group had the flexibility to stage simultaneous assaults. On Friday, August 7, she turned out to be proper: Main explosions occurred at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing a whole bunch and injuring 1000’s. When the assaults have been conclusively linked to al-Qaeda, this was, as one operations officer later wrote, a “profound” revelation, in that it confirmed that bin Laden might conduct “large-scale bombings of U.S. targets.”

Progressively, the reality was working its technique to the company’s seventh flooring and to CIA Director George Tenet, who tried to convey to the White Home the extent of the risk. A collection of plans to seize bin Laden have been shaped however have been rejected by high officers, who fearful about how exact the focusing on was and the hazard of placing civilians in danger. After the 1998 embassy bombings, Tenet paid a go to to Alec Station. As he wrote in his 2007 memoir, a feminine member approached him and, “quivering with emotion,” confronted him about one plan to apprehend bin Laden that had gotten nixed. Many CIA girls later observed the phrase and resented its implication that the ladies had been emotional and weak.

As 2000 gave technique to 2001, Storer discovered herself studying terrorist communications that used phrases like “Olympic-sized” and “Armageddon.” In October 2000, suicide bombers in Yemen blew a gap in the usCole, killing 17 American sailors, and analysts have been shocked when the outgoing Clinton administration didn’t retaliate. In 2001, Tenet started begging the incoming administration of George W. Bush to let the CIA mount an operation that allowed for killing bin Laden quite than capturing him. Analysts anticipated that one other main assault might occur in the summertime, and Storer felt duty and dread: That is going to occur in your watch.

In July, Barbara Sude was tasked with writing a PDB that tackled the query everybody was questioning: Would possibly the massive assault happen on the U.S. mainland? She remembers her boss saying phrases to the impact of, “They’re in search of a chunk on bin Laden and the U.S.” From this unfastened instruction, Sude normal probably the most well-known warnings in American historical past.

She and some different analysts had written practically 40 warning gadgets that 12 months alone. She had a pile of papers two toes excessive on her desk, together with one by the FAA about hijackings. Crafting the memo with the enter of colleagues, Sude famous that bin Laden had implied in TV interviews that he wished to observe the instance of the 1993 World Commerce Heart bomber, Ramzi Yousef, and “deliver the combating to America.” The memo identified that the 1998 bombings of the embassies in East Africa, which bin Laden associates had scoped out as early as 1993, confirmed that al-Qaeda was affected person and “not deterred by setbacks.” Al-Qaeda members “have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years,” she wrote. Risk reporting recommended that bin Laden wished to hijack a U.S. plane, and the FBI had famous patterns of exercise suggesting “preparations for hijackings or different forms of assaults.”

She faxed a draft to the FBI, and despatched it as much as the PDB editors, who titled it “Bin Ladin Decided to Strike in U.S.” However the editors wished extra statistics from the FBI. Sude referred to as the Bureau once more and discovered that it was conducting “roughly 70 full subject investigations” wanting into “bin Ladin–associated” exercise in america. Sude added that data to the draft. The merchandise was put within the e book on August 6, and the president was briefed.

Sude would all the time surprise: When President Bush was instructed of the existence of greater than 70 FBI investigations into bin Laden actions within the American homeland, did the commander in chief fear? Did he ever name the FBI director and ask him what was occurring? Bush later instructed congressional investigators that he felt heartened to study of so many investigations. He took it to imply that issues have been below management. After the August 6 PDB ran, 4 weeks handed earlier than the Bush administration had its first Cupboard-level assembly in regards to the risk posed by al-Qaeda, on September 4, 2001.

The day of the assaults, the CIA workers evacuated headquarters, aside from folks within the counterterrorist heart. The ladies there, who thought {that a} airplane could be headed for Langley—and for them—felt a combination of worry, anger, failure, resentment, and guilt. Within the coming years, they labored to stop extra assaults and to trace down the perpetrators, significantly bin Laden. One staff member, Jennifer Matthews, died in that effort, killed alongside colleagues when a suicide bomber infiltrated the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan. Some, like Cindy Storer and Barbara Sude, continued searching terrorists for a few years, till they retired. Gina Bennett was nonetheless on the CIA when bin Laden was discovered and killed on Might 2, 2011, and stayed on for years after that. Freda Bikowsky, who went on to direct the “world jihad” unit, married Michael Scheuer in 2014 (she now goes by Alfreda Scheuer). Scheuer, in the meantime, was eased out of Alec Station in 1999 and left the company in 2004, after rising increasingly outspoken in regards to the Iraq Warfare and different points. He went on to create a weblog the place he has expressed admiration for QAnon, claimed that the 2020 election was stolen, supported mob violence towards Black Lives Matter protesters, and referred to as for the killing of journalists and Democratic politicians, amongst different extremist views. (“He bears no resemblance to the person I knew,” Bennett instructed me.)

That these girls’s warnings—and lots of different warnings—weren’t acted on owes to many components. With any failure as massive as 9/11 comes hindsight bias and I-told-you-sos. However there’s no query that early strategic warnings, and later tactical ones, have been made by girls who labored in an un-prestigious, discounted unit, and who had their ears to the bottom.

After the assault, Tenet demanded that analysts, with their granular information, be included in high-level briefings. When the hunt for bin Laden was reinvigorated practically 10 years after 9/11, a staff of targeters—strikingly feminine—proved key to the mission’s success. No matter else it’s, the CIA is a office, one with institutional biases, turf wars, forms, and, sure, sexism. When the stakes are so excessive, these dynamics can have history-making penalties.


This text has been tailored from The Sisterhood: The Secret Historical past of Ladies on the CIA.


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