The reality for a woman agent working in the secret world of intelligence often leads to extraordinary obstacles and sacrifices. Melissa Boyle Mahle, a sixteen-year covert operative for the CIA in the Middle East, was the Agency's top-ranked female Arabist before she left in 2002. In Denial and Deception, Mahle not only describes the Agency's successes and failures, but details her life as a woman in one of the last professions that remain almost exclusively male-directed and dominated. The author has a unique vantage point from which to view the political and operational culture of the CIA in the post-Cold War climate, and reveals how it failed to anticipate the 9/11 attacks. From Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, she provides a vivid narrative of how the agency became a rudderless organization, lost in the post-Cold War world. Afraid to take risks that might offend Congress and European allies after overstepping its legal bounds in the Iran-Contra era, gutted of the clandestine operators who knew how to run secret wars, demoralized by criticism and poor performance, the CIA simply became unable and unwilling "to get down and dirty to do the hard part to fight a real war on terrorism."
A former clandestine agent specializing in the Middle East, Mahle begins with September 11th (she was doing intake on prospective applicants), but the bulk of her work recounts the CIA's involvement in such low watermarks of American intelligence as the Iran-Contra and the Ames affairs, and what she says have been their the devastating internal consequences. This is not just a memoir; Mahle joined the agency in 1988, and she pings back and forth in time, covering events and periods with which she was not directly involved. She decries what she characterizes as indiscriminate Congressional investigations, as well as political pressures to tailor conclusions to the biases of superiors. Both have led, she says, to demoralization and to a serious reduction in the CIA's overall capabilities-with the effects being fully felt now, as the U.S. finds itself in dire need of HUMINT (or human intelligence) from the Middle East and elsewhere. Reading the book is like talking to one of Seymour Hersh's sources, but with the relevance filter off; there's tons of information here-with a good deal on pre- and post-September 11th al-Qaeda-but very few readers will find all of it engaging. Nevertheless, as a major debriefing from an insider, one who writes clearly and often wryly, it succeeds.