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All the CIA’s Women

When the Sisterhood is too powerful

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the spy agency of a superpower constituted mostly of white men must be in search of brown women. So it appears is the current reality of the CIA, which, to the general disapprobation of all sides of the political spectrum, has produced a recruitment advertisement featuring a Latina woman. In the commercial, this cis-gender millennial (we know this because she tells us) admits to all sorts of deficiencies; she has an anxiety disorder and has struggled with imposter syndrome (because minority women, all of them, must worry about being as good as middle-aged white men, the CIA’s chief demographic). Perfection, the ad seems to tell us, has to be abandoned in the agency’s turn to be racially inclusive; now it has to deal with anxious moms who’re worrying about their children.

Most of the debate around the ad, which has received an inordinate amount of attention (to which I am grumpily contributing), has revolved around issues of “wokeness.” Conservatives (to the extent that the post-Trump remainders can be referred to in this manner) still clutching to the myth of a raceless America are decrying the agency’s drive for inclusion as a capitulation. Senator Ted Cruz mourned the new turn for the fact that it was not scary enough, tweeting: “If you’re a Chinese communist, or an Iranian mullah, or Kim Jong Un . . . would this scare you? We’ve come a long way from Jason Bourne.” Someone had to remind the senator that Jason Bourne was not an actual agent, but a work of fiction. The American left laughed too. The ad’s clever if ironic co-opting of anti-racist language to further the interests of an organization that has been implicated in the torture of thousands and in coups that have destabilized nations was duly noted.

These, however, are superficial quibbles and they ignore the infrastructure that has already been put in place to create the agency’s particular brand of what Columbia University anthropologist and social science professor Lila Abu-Lughod has called “securofeminism,” or the particular installation of women in leadership positions of initiatives to counter violent extremism. White women, either unsuspicious or unconcerned about the blood on the hands of empire (or its spy agency), gladly signed up. Proof was in the pudding in 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed by American Navy Seals; for years, even before bin Laden was well-known, the work of finding him was attributed to a team of white women within the CIA called “The Sisterhood.”

They may have felt they were on a noble mission, but the work always requires moral and ethical compromise: the CIA is the entity that attempted in 2011 to gather DNA evidence from children believed to be associated with bin Laden by using a vaccine clinic as a covert operation. The CIA’s actions to co-opt the vaccination campaign ended up harming the trust in vaccines in Pakistan altogether, which led to a drop-off in vaccinations, thus contributing to deaths in the current pandemic. This sisterly superpower of looking the other way was distilled into a single heroine in the raid’s cinematic translation, Zero Dark Thirty, where Jessica Chastain plays Maya, an undeterrable woman who does not balk at torture. A future projection for Chastain’s character could easily have been a shoo-in for the agency’s recent director, Gina Haspel, the first woman to hold that role. The model for the ultimate CIA heroine is for her to be white and for her to elide over the obvious white supremacy built in to American foreign policy and its espionage agenda. The invitation to join the CIA proffered to Latinas, then, is hardly an invitation to wokeness or racial diversity; it is simply an invitation to become white, or at least to pretend that you have done so.

Those who would describe themselves as intersectional feminists would have some problems throwing other women under the bus or, more aptly, under the drone.

For the torrent of wokeness that the CIA recruitment commercial belts out, one word is notably missing. “I am intersectional,” the unnamed woman declares; not “I am an intersectional feminist.” The absent word, its intentional and, to use the ad’s own word, “unapologetic” excision of feminism, may well be one bumbling Freudian attempt to own up to the dirty work that the agency will require Brown women to do. An intersectional feminist, a la the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, would be someone who recognizes that race and class have an impact on the worth assigned to women. Those who would describe themselves as intersectional feminists would have some problems throwing other women in other countries, declared worthless as they are by a global system erected on white and Western supremacy, under the bus or, more aptly, the drone.  They would know that the United States does not simply institutionalize white supremacy at home but as far as its imperial tentacles will reach. There is a crucial difference here: an imperial feminist joins the CIA to feel powerful by signing up to the further the agenda of empire; an intersectional feminist refuses to target and kill Brown and Black women at the behest of empire and white supremacy.

In her incisive new book Radicalizing Her: Why Women Choose Violence, Dr. Nimmi Gowrinathan presents a pressing analysis that reveals just how little the struggles or achievements of female fighters in other countries are valued by mainstream white feminists. She interviews women from the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and women in Eritrea, Colombia, and Mexico to reveal that these women are neither duped nor weak-willed, assumptions that have nevertheless been deployed both by the state they confront and struggle against and an international aid infrastructure that constructs the Countering Violent Extremism programs that are meant to re-train them to be politically mute and hence “safe.”

Over the past few years, the growing prominence of women in movements protesting against the rampant police killings of Black people and of the inhuman conditions afforded asylum-seekers and migrants from Latin America has undoubtedly worried the CIA. The risk is that these Black and Brown women would identify more readily with those others in the world fighting oppressive states rather than their own state institutions (such as the FBI and the CIA) likely poses, in their view, a risk that government in the United States would be recalibrated such that billions are not poured into agencies like the CIA but instead into programs that actually help Black and Brown women.

The goal of the CIA in recruiting Latina women, then, is not to implement some newfound commitment to racial inclusion by the adoption of policies or at least language that suggests a sensitivity toward racial and sexual minorities. It is instead a selfish initiative, designed to take in Brown women by providing them a shortcut to power rather than actual empowerment. Here again the agency is playing the long game; enough racial diversity at a time when the United States is undergoing demographic transformation ensures that future voters will not cut down its cushy share of the pie and continue to let its officers be imperial killers.