Janine Brookner: Lawyer and former spy who fought sexism in the CIA

After being ousted by her bosses, Brookner used her skills to call out the agency for what she considered an ingrained culture of discrimination

Matt Schudel
Monday 24 May 2021 00:00
<p>Janine Brookner was among the most skilled and admired case officers in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations</p>

Janine Brookner was among the most skilled and admired case officers in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations

For 20 years, Janine Brookner worked at US embassies around the world, attending diplomatic gatherings, meeting people and developing friendships. She was barely 5ft tall, with a gentle smile that made her look years younger. She was a single mother, accompanied by a young son on her international travels, and had a quiet, soft-spoken manner. She was not the kind of person, people often said, you would expect to be a spy.

Yet Brookner was among the most skilled and admired case officers in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations – the clandestine service that infiltrates foreign countries and recruits agents to provide secrets. She was among the few women to ascend the ranks of the department until her career was derailed in the 1990s by accusations of professional misconduct which turned out to be false.

Brookner, who had a long legal battle with the CIA and later became a lawyer who specialised in protecting federal employees against mistreatment, has died age 80.

She was still in her twenties when she had her first CIA assignment in Manila. She learned an old spy’s trick of befriending bartenders, telling them to leave the gin out of her gin and tonics as she met potential sources. She persuaded several people to become undercover informants and infiltrated the Philippines Communist Party, which her boss called “an almost impossible task” in a 1994 report in The New York Times.

“When you recruit someone, they have to trust you to put their security in your hands,” Brookner told the Syracuse Post-Standard in 1998. “Maybe as caretakers for a family, women can be good at developing that trust.”

She had an exemplary record in later postings in Thailand, Venezuela and New York, where she monitored United Nations delegations from Communist countries. When Brookner was named station chief in Jamaica in 1989, she became the first woman to lead a station in the Caribbean or Latin America. She took over a troubled post that was, according to the CIA’s own records, “a managerial nightmare”.

Brookner reported her deputy station chief for beating his wife; she cited a second man who had allegedly threatened to kill his Jamaican security guards; she also disciplined a female case officer who was said to have drunkenly shouted in a bar that she worked for the CIA and hated her job. Other officers were reprimanded for cheating expenses and misusing agency vehicles.

Brookner’s bosses called her work in Jamaica “superb” and “top-notch” but in 1991, just when she was expected to take over a key post in Prague, her career came to a halt. Soon afterwards, the CIA inspector general’s office, then led by Frederick Hitz, began an investigation – not of the actions of the out-of-control officers in Jamaica but of Brookner herself.

An official report portrayed her as an alcoholic vixen who made sexual advances toward male co-workers. She was accused of making the bar-room rant for which she had admonished a lower-ranking officer and of wearing provocative clothing “with no perceptible underwear”.

(“My underwear was not ‘perceptible’,” she said later, “because underwear is not supposed to be seen”.)

While fighting the charges, Brookner was relegated to a cell-like office with no windows or telephone at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. She entered a Kafka-esque system in which everything seemed stacked against her: under CIA rules, she was referred to as “Jane Doe Thompson”, rather than her real name.

The identities of her accusers were also kept secret at first. People who could support her story, including the US ambassador to Jamaica at the time, had not been interviewed by the inspector-general’s staff. It wasn’t the first time in her career that Brookner had encountered disdain from the CIA’s old-guard male hierarchy. When she was in New York in 1984, she warned her bosses about a reckless CIA officer who was speaking openly about covert operations. No action was taken.

That agent was Aldrich Ames, who was arrested in 1993 after spying for years for the Soviet Union and Russia. He is now serving life in prison.

Brookner lodged an equal employment opportunity complaint against the CIA but her claim was rejected. She then hired a lawyer, Victoria Toensing, who in 1994 filed a suit alleging that Brookner had been the victim of a “pervasive atmosphere of machismo and sexual discrimination”.

Journalist and CIA historian Tim Weiner told The Washington Post Magazine in 2018: “Apart from the marines, there is no branch of service in the United States government as hostile to women as the clandestine services of the CIA.”

The original inspector-general’s report accused Brookner of making sexual advances towards a fellow CIA officer but the account was amended to say she had approached a visiting agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Brookner and Toensing found the agent, who stated in an affidavit that the incident never took place and that Brookner had always been perfectly professional.

The case was settled the next day. The CIA paid Brookner $410,000 (£296,000) plus legal fees totalling more than $250,000. She retired as part of the agreement and the CIA made no admission of wrongdoing.

But Brookner was not finished. In 1995, she asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into the CIA, on the grounds that the case against her was “predicated on perjury” by vindictive officers from the Jamaica station.

Toensing told The Post in 2004: “All the accusations made against her came from people she’d disciplined.” In the end, no charges were made but Brookner embarrassed the CIA by appearing on ABC’s Nightline, along with other former CIA officials, calling out the agency for what she considered an ingrained culture of discrimination.

Janine Marilyn Okun was born 26 December 1940 in Syracuse, New York. Her father worked in newspaper circulation and her mother was a real estate broker. Brookner married soon after high school, then graduated in 1964 from Russell Sage College in Troy, New York. In 1968, she received a master’s degree in Russian studies from New York University. One of her professors recommended that she apply to the CIA.

As her CIA career was collapsing, Brookner knew she would have to reinvent her life. She attended George Washington University law school at night, graduating in 1998 at age 57, and set up a solo practice at her home in Georgetown.

She said in 1998 of her ousting from the agency: “If this hadn’t happened, I would probably be one of the senior women in the CIA. I would not have asked this to happen but it’s given me an entirely new focus. It’s liberating. I feel free.”

In keeping with her clandestine training, Brookner may have been the only lawyer in Washington with an unlisted number. Nonetheless, clients found their way to her door.

“People started calling me from the CIA and the State Department and the USDA [Agriculture Department]” and other agencies, she told The Post in 2004.

She represented dozens of women in gender discrimination cases against the CIA and defended whistleblowers, including two federal meat inspectors who were fired after drawing attention to widespread corruption in the Agriculture Department. She represented a gay official who was declared a security risk.

She even handled legal matters for Bonnie Hanssen, the wife of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who was convicted of spying for Russia. “When she first called me, her husband had been arrested the night before,” Brookner said in 2018. After determining that Hanssen knew nothing of her husband’s activities, Brookner focused on seeing that she receive the pension benefits to which she was entitled.

In 2004, Brookner published a book, Piercing the Veil of Secrecy, about how to fight the CIA and other federal agencies in court. Despite her experiences, “I really have no regrets about the CIA,” she told The Post. “I knew I wanted an adventurous life and I got it.”

She is survived by two children and five grandchildren.

Janine Brookner, lawyer and former CIA spy, born 26 December 1940, died 11 May

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