The Woman Protecting America That Nobody Knows

Jessica Chastain as Maya in 'Zero Dark Thirty' (Photo: Columbia Pictures)An unnamed woman has been appointed acting head of the CIA's National Clandestine Service. According to a Washington Post article, this is the first time a woman has ever led the branch that oversees the agency's covert operations. The woman, who remains undercover, was placed in the top position shortly before John Brennan was sworn in as CIA Director on March 8, but the news only broke on Wednesday. The timing coincides with another first for women in government. Julia Pierson was named director of the Secret Service on Tuesday.

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The woman's identity is kept secret but according to The Daily Mail, she's believed to be in her 50s. The Washington Post calls her a "veteran officer with broad support inside the agency" but also reveals her controversial past as the officer who helped run the CIA’s detention and interrogation program after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. In 2005, she and her then-boss signed off on the decision to destroy videotapes of prisoners being subjected to treatment critics have called torture. (The destruction was investigated by the Justice Department but no charges were filed.) Both these incidents must be considered in order for her to be given the gig full time.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official who anonymously spoke to "The Washington Post" says she “is highly experienced, smart and capable,” and giving her the job permanently “would be a home run from a diversity standpoint." However she was “also heavily involved in the interrogation program at the beginning and for the first couple of years.”

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Because of her past, says the senior U.S. intelligence official, CIA Director John A. Brennan “is obviously hesitating” at making her role permanent. To help him make the decision, he's having three former CIA officials evaluate the candidates, a selection process that's never been used before, said the official.

Promoting women like her and Pierson to senior government roles is a big deal since spy and law enforcement agencies have traditionally been "boy's clubs", known to resist the gender diversity that's occurred more rapidly in other parts of government. The newly appointed women are real-life role models for those who have only seldom had such female figures to look to in Hollywood movies and television shows. Characters such as Sydney Bristow, a CIA agent played by Jennifer Garner in "Alias" (2001), Claire Danes' character CIA spy Carrie Mathison on "Homeland" (2011), CIA officer Evelyn Salt played by Angelina Jolie in "Salt" (2010) and Maya, a young CIA officer in director Kathryn Bigelow's 2012 film "Zero Dark Thirty" are rarities in a sea of roles occupied by the Denzel Washington/Matt Damon/George Clooney's of the world.

These fictitious female CIA officials are often created with the help of a CIA government agency called the Entertainment Liaison Office which collaborates with the film industry on how the CIA is portrayed in the media. According to their website their role is to "give greater authenticity to scripts, stories, and other products in development. That can mean answering questions, debunking myths, or arranging visits to the CIA to meet the people who know intelligence — its past, present, and future. In some cases, we permit filming on our headquarters compound."

Perhaps the promotion of Pierson and this unnamed CIA official will start to become the norm, both in Hollywood and in real life.

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