From “Divine Secrets of the RYBAT Sisterhood: Four Senior Women of the Directorate of Operations Discuss Their Careers,” the transcript of a recently declassified 2004 conversation among five high-ranking female CIA officials, whose last names have been redacted. “RYBAT” is a CIA cryptonym for information that is extremely sensitive. The transcript was released last October to accompany the report “From Typist to Trailblazer: The Evolving View of Women in the CIA’s Workforce.”
carla: When I came in, in 1965, the first assumption was that any female you met in the hallway was a secretary or a clerk. The other big difference was we wore hats and white gloves every day. The gloves were inspected as you entered the office to be sure that your palms were white.
meredith: I came in as a contract wife in ’79.
susan: I’m not sure we have contract wives anymore. Can you say what a contract wife was?
meredith: Sure we do!
susan: Not like they were, though.
meredith: There were lots of us. Back then we didn’t allow any officers who were married to go to [redacted] without the wife going through the full [redacted] course.
patty: The spouses — they were all women — were terrific because they had no preconceived notions and they inevitably — this is being a female chauvinist — were much better at detecting surveillants on foot. I always put that down to women being more sensitive to who’s near or in their space, for physical protection. But they were great at picking up surveillants on foot and in stores. Because surveillants don’t shop well; they just can’t fake it. So when did you officially stop being a contract wife?
meredith: I interviewed with — I guess he’s not around anymore, but I won’t use his name—
patty: Go ahead, go ahead.
susan: There you go!
meredith: Who was at the time — hey, now that you mention it, was in the position that I’m in now. He said to me, “I really don’t believe in women being ops officers. You might get pregnant.” I said, “Well, it’s okay, [redacted], because I’ve been fixed.” Immediately he said, “Well, okay, you seem like a reasonable candidate.”
patty: And you were lying.
meredith: I was lying.
susie: My experience coming in is kind of different, because I was born in Iran and my husband is a [redacted] State Department officer. One day my husband said, “Susie, I think you should work.” There was an ad in the paper that said CIA wanted Persian instructors, so he applied for me. I did the teaching for two days a week, then I kind of got bored with it. My husband was going to [redacted] so I went with him. It was 1979. Hostages were taken. I got a call from CIA saying, “Please come back.” In 1983, I became full-time. That almost cost our marriage. Remember, this was during Contra—
meredith: Is this when [redacted] was set up?
susie: Yes. I would get a call in the middle of the night: “Susie, go and [redacted] such and such [redacted] and don’t ask any questions.”
carla: I applied when I was fifteen. Guess I was a freshman in high school, but there were family considerations and my college degree went out the window. I thought, well, I’ve just got to get a job. They interviewed me, and it went pretty well. They said, “We’re prepared to hire you as a GS-3.” I said, “Well, the Pentagon is hiring at the GS-5 level . . . ” Now, the end of that sentence is, “ . . . if you have two years of work experience and a college degree.” The woman on the phone said, “You’re fifteen years old!” I was assigned in Division D, one of these supersecret places. I was not allowed to ask any questions about anything I was doing. I was using crypts and pseudos and was like, “What is this thing? What is this word?” I would write them all down in this little notebook and I thought, “A year from now, I’m going to ask all these questions.” As a secretary, that’s where I learned all my ops skills, watching my bosses. But when I got to a position where I really needed mentoring, it wasn’t there.
susan: Thinking back on how things have changed, what do you want to say to this younger generation?
patty: Number one, have fun. Kick back, tell stories, get a laugh. I mean there is nothing more crazy out there than people. I had a heck of a lot of fun, but I gotta tell you, these young people are going to have a lot of fun. We’re at some turning points and some changes in the world that are just mind-blowing. Frankly, I would love to be out there and twenty-five again, starting in on some of the challenges.
susie: [Laughing] Knowing what we know now.