Janine Brookner: The CIA spy turned lawyer exposing the sexual harassment taking place behind government walls

Long before #MeToo entered the national consciousness, the ex-agent was on a one-woman crusade to hold abusers to account

Abigail Jones
Monday 11 June 2018 13:11
After resigning from the CIA, Janine Brookner has helped scores of women, and some men, file sexual harassment and other lawsuits against the government for the past two decades
After resigning from the CIA, Janine Brookner has helped scores of women, and some men, file sexual harassment and other lawsuits against the government for the past two decades

Janine Brookner was utterly unlike anyone Carl Nett had ever worked with before. As a Secret Service officer and a contractor for the CIA and the Pentagon, he had travelled across the United States and around the world protecting presidents, first ladies and political candidates, and had seen war and its aftermath in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Now, standing before him was a polite older woman, just over 5 feet tall, greeting him in the doorway of her townhouse in Washington, surrounded by her tiny yapping dogs.

“I remember thinking, ‘She was in the CIA?’” he says. “Not as an insult – it takes all types – but I was coming off a war zone surrounded by bearded guys with tattoos and rifles. It took me a while to digest it: she’s going to help me take on the agency?”

Yes, she was. In fact, this unassuming-looking spy-turned-lawyer was just the person Nett needed for his gruelling case. He had left the Secret Service in 2008 to join a private company supporting national security missions; the next year, he landed in Afghanistan on a contract with the CIA. His first day on the job at Bagram air base, he says, his female CIA supervisor, the deputy chief of base, started sexually harassing him. She’d sit next to him at group gatherings and rub his thighs or sit on his desk and flirt with him in front of military personnel. Other times she grabbed his chest, squeezed his pecs and asked if he had a girlfriend. She liked to call him “my baby”.

Nett reported the behaviour to the CIA’s chief of base, also a woman, who said she didn’t think the deputy meant any harm but promised to talk to her. That’s when, he alleges, the retaliation began. He says that his living quarters were ransacked while he was at work – drawers left open, clothes flung around, laptop tampered with, mail opened. He reported the break-in immediately. Within 24 hours, he says, two armed security personnel knocked on his door, told him to pack his bags and escorted him to a helicopter. He was being kicked out of the country.

Back in Washington, Nett pursued a complaint against the CIA that dragged on for four years. Then he hired Brookner. Suddenly, he says, “there was a recognition that I was someone who wasn’t going away, who wouldn’t be intimidated”. Brookner settled the case in 2015, after numerous standoffs with agency lawyers. “When they came back with their final offer, Janine just smirked and said, ‘I doubt that,’” Nett recalls. “We countered their ‘final offer’ and settled for more.” He attributes his victory to having had Brookner at his side, protecting his reputation and his future career.

“I don’t want to be cavalier, but by the same token, while this would crush most people, it didn’t crush me,” says Nett, who now lives in Louisville and is running for secretary of state of Kentucky. “I protected the president wearing a bulletproof vest. I gave my blood to Langley so they could identify my remains in case I was killed beyond recognition. And Janine was the lawyer who was as tough as I am.”

Long before the Me Too movement entered the national consciousness, Janine Brookner was on a one-woman crusade to expose abuses taking place behind government walls. She knew about sexual harassment – because, she says, she had experienced it herself in her quarter-century working as a spy in the CIA’s clandestine service. She says she was sexually harassed by around a dozen men, including three married division chiefs.

Now in her mid-70s, Brookner is taking on fewer cases, though she continues to receive half a dozen calls a month

Reporting those incidents would have been “career suicide”, she explains, so at the time, she stayed silent. But when, at the height of her career, the agency ironically charged her with having sexually harassed some of her male employees, among other allegations, she fought back – and prevailed.

The CIA declined to comment on Brookner’s case and career or on any of the other cases described in this article.

After leaving the CIA, Brookner, then in her early 50s, embarked on a new career as a lawyer, graduating from George Washington University Law School in 1998. For the past two decades, she has helped scores of women – and some men – file sexual harassment and other lawsuits against government agencies including the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, the US Department of Agriculture, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Defence Intelligence Agency.

“Nobody was there to protect her,” says “Diane”, a former case officer who overlapped with Brookner for more than 30 years and spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. “She had no knight in shining armour. She lived through it on her own, got far into the DO” – the CIA’s Directorate of Operations – “and went as far as a woman could go, and then her career was ruined. So she became that knight for others.”

“Hi, Tony! Tony baloney!” Brookner picks up her Maltese and snuggles him as another white furball, Cleo, scampers over and starts barking. “Uh-uh, no fighting! Come on, you can come up and see Mommy,” she says, her grey-blond bob fluttering as she plops both pups on her lap and covers them in kisses.

She’s sitting on the beige couch in her spacious living room-cum-office in Washington’s Georgetown neighbourhood on a cloudy day in December 2016. Orchids and cactuses line the atrium windows overlooking the Potomac River, and all around her are relics of her life overseas: Burmese Buddhas, gold-leaf cabinets from Thailand, a shimmering Haitian voodoo flag hanging above the fireplace.

Wearing a pale cyan sweater and black pants tucked into riding boots, Brookner looks more like a J Crew ad for the grandparent set than a onetime spy or a hard-hitting attorney. Indeed, of the more than two dozen people I interviewed for this article, most shared a version of the same story: the moment they realised that this petite woman, with her soft chuckles and composed demeanour, is a shrewd, relentless fighter.

Brookner, who grew up in Syracuse, New York, hadn’t even heard of the CIA until a professor urged her to apply to work there halfway through her Russian studies master’s at New York University. She’d moved to Manhattan with her young son, Steven, after a failed marriage to her high school sweetheart. For as long as she could remember, she’d been “desperate” to travel overseas and have adventure, but life hadn’t worked out that way – yet. When her professor mentioned the CIA, she mailed her résumé to an address she found in a book at the New York Public Library. About a year later, she landed at the Farm, the CIA’s secretive ops training program. It was 1968, and she was one of just six women in a class of 66. “The guys were fun and good to be with,” she says. “It was the people at the agency – the managers and the people at headquarters – who really looked down on women as operations officers.”

Historically, the CIA, and especially the DO, had been a boys’ club. “If you were going to be promoted to chief of station, you must have won that promotion on your back or on your knees – that was still very much the climate at CIA at the end of the 20th century,” says journalist Tim Weiner, whose history of the agency, “Legacy of Ashes”, won the National Book Award. “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.”

In 1995, more than 400 female case officers would bring a class-action lawsuit against the agency, accusing it of a long-standing pattern of sex discrimination. Today, of course, there has been progress: the Senate recently confirmed Gina Haspel as the first female CIA director. Until last year, women held the number two, three and four posts, and they make up nearly half the agency’s workforce and a third of senior leadership positions. And yet, the DO is still dominated by men. As recently as 2013, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote a report arguing that the CIA’s failure to nurture and promote women “directly and negatively impacts the mission”, and calling for “significant reforms” to gender diversity.

In 1996, then CIA director Robert Gates appeared publicly to criticise the investigation that led to Brookner’s downfall

After the Farm, Brookner wanted to work in the DO, where she’d get to carry out covert assignments and recruit foreigners to spy on their countries. But in those days, the CIA typically funnelled women into desk jobs that involved writing and polishing reports, assessing sources, analysing critical information and supporting case officers. She faced obstacles at every turn – once, she says, a manager told her he’d never hire her because she might “go off and get married to the next guy” – but in 1969, she landed a job as a case officer in the Philippines. “Here comes a woman working in the Manila station, where male officers were notorious for their womanising,” says Colin Thompson, a retired CIA case officer who worked with Brookner in Manila and spent his 28-year career engaged in operations in Southeast Asia and opposing communist intelligence services. The two married in 1973 and divorced six years later. “She had the presence and skills to take somebody and not have to run around bars and whatnot, but work on a personal basis, winning their confidence. That’s how the best ones do their jobs.”

Postings in Thailand, Venezuela, the United Nations and Jamaica followed. She reportedly excelled in every one. Over the years, according to the New York Times, she infiltrated the Communist Party, recruited a Soviet bloc agent and warned the CIA, to no avail, about a colleague named Aldrich Ames who was spilling secrets to his foreign girlfriend in 1984, a year before he started spying for the Soviet Union. The assignment in Jamaica – which made her the CIA’s first female station chief in Latin America – was especially challenging. The office in Kingston was widely considered a dead-end assignment in a dangerous city, where the team spent more time misbehaving than spying. But Brookner earned accolades as a leader and morale booster who steered the station in “the right direction”, according to internal performance evaluations.

After two years in Jamaica, she headed back to Langley in the summer of 1991 and waited for her bosses to formalise her next assignment: chief of station in Prague. Instead, she learned she was under investigation. A handful of officers at her Jamaica posting had accused her of promiscuity, drunkenness, sexual harassment and more. These were the same subordinates Brookner says she’d reported for public drunkenness, spousal abuse and other bad behaviours. She saw only one way out: she sued the CIA for sexual discrimination. She was risking her career, her family’s stability and her finances for a case with an uncertain outcome. “We asked her, ‘Are you sure you want to be the torch bearer here?’” recalls Steve Zelinger, who represented Brookner along with Victoria Toensing. Says Toensing: “Janine has an inner core. She knew this wasn’t right and said, ‘I’m gonna fight it.’”

Brookner had been known in the press as Jane Doe Thompson – until September 1994, when the New York Times published her name in a front-page article by Weiner that began with a sentence she recites from memory: “By all accounts, Janine Brookner was a terrific spy.” She remembers standing outside a convenience store reading the story and sobbing. For the first time, she grasped the fact that she’d never be able to work undercover again.

A few months after that Times story, the agency offered Brookner a settlement of $410,000 and agreed to pay her legal fees. She took it and resigned. Some time later, she ran into Weiner at a book party. “He said, ‘I’m sorry if I blew your cover.’ I said, ‘Tim, you liberated me’.”

“Her appearance on the front page of the New York Times was a seminal event exposing the deep-rooted sexism at the agency,” says Weiner, who remembers the encounter and what he called their tongue-in-cheek exchange. “There’s a before Janine and an after Janine. That story, and her willingness to go public, meant that after would be forever after. The agency was on notice that it could not treat women as second-class citizens.”

Films of nuclear bomb tests from mid-20th century become declassified and accessible

In 1996, three former high-ranking CIA officials – director Robert Gates, deputy director of operations Thomas Twetten, and Milton Bearden, chief of the Soviet-East European division – appeared on ABC News’ “Nightline” to lambast the investigation that had led to her downfall. The rare public apology vindicated Brookner, but by then, she was on her way to her next calling. After law school, she’d planned to focus on domestic violence cases. Then the voice mails started piling up – messages from women at the agency or the State Department or elsewhere, pleading for help. “I’d meet with them and be drawn into the case, and sympathise with it, and say, ‘Okay’,” she recalls. After a short, unsatisfactory stint with a law firm, she launched her own practice out of her living room.

Brookner was one of the few lawyers equipped to navigate this bizarro land of redacted documents, classified information, security clearances, seemingly insurmountable stalling tactics and the prevailing assumption that victims would give up, run out of money or die before seeing their cases through. “When she came out of law school and jumped into that type of work, she was very green,” says Mark Zaid, a national security attorney who has been representing intelligence officers, military law enforcement and classified cases for 25 years. “But she had a wealth of knowledge and experience that I was never going to have. And in dealing with the intelligence community, especially CIA, that made her a formidable adversary to them, and dangerous.”

Brookner has pursued her work as a lawyer just as she cultivated her covert career in the CIA: discreetly. Her phone number is unlisted. She has no website and no staff, aside from the occasional intern or two. She dislikes media attention. Potential clients typically find her in one of two ways: through a friend in the intelligence community or through an old news item about her lawsuit against the CIA. “Real spies don’t like the limelight,” says “Sara”, a former client who used to work for the DO as a Middle East specialist and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “She’s reluctant about coming out of the shadows, because our real nature is to stay under the radar. That, to me, was the authenticity factor of Janine.”

Before taking on a case, Brookner will spend months researching a potential client’s claims. “The first time I met her, before she heard my story, she made it clear that her time was precious,” says Kathryn Proffitt, US ambassador to Malta from 1997 to 2001. “She said, ‘I will only accept your case if I really believe in your case.’ And I think that defines why she’s different as a lawyer.”

Proffitt hired Brookner in late 2001, after enduring what she alleges was a year and a half of emotional and professional abuse by her deputy chief of mission in Malta. She claims that her deputy angled for her job, disobeyed orders and sent cables back to Washington undermining her work, questioning her decisions and describing her as an incompetent leader. “They did not get along,” says John Halinski, defence attaché in Malta from 1998 to 2004. The deputy “did everything she could to break what Kathy accomplished”.

Brookner's home is full of mementos from her various postings

At the end of her tour of duty, Proffitt says, the deputy – who was in charge until a new ambassador was chosen – refused to let her clean out her office or say goodbye to her staff, held up her financial reimbursements and sent embassy personnel to her house to “inspect every box to be sure I didn’t steal anything”. Proffitt had asked to remain in the ambassador’s residence, on her own dime, for the final few weeks of her official duties as her 20-year-old daughter recovered from a near-fatal car accident. The deputy denied her request, she alleges, giving her only a day to pack and move out with her daughter, who was in a wheelchair. Attempts to reach the deputy for comment were unsuccessful.

Proffitt couldn’t litigate the deputy’s alleged poor behaviour, but she could fight for the money she’d been denied. She remembers Brookner’s response when she heard the story: “If you don’t [file a grievance], you’re going to allow someone else to be treated that way.” An outside mediator awarded Proffitt monetary reimbursement in 2005. But she was more interested in justice. “I wanted to make sure what happened came to the attention of the State Department,” Proffitt says. “Janine didn’t just understand, she empathised. She understood that betrayal.”

In the first decade of her legal career, Brookner represented whistleblowers and victims of gender and sexual orientation discrimination, led a class action against the CIA, and wrote a book for lawyers and plaintiffs called “Piercing the Veil of Secrecy: Litigation Against US Intelligence”. Once, she recalls, she met a client in a Thai prison. Another time, a woman showed up at her house, begging her to take her case.

And then there was the time she got a call from a friend at the FBI, asking if she’d meet the wife of the man responsible for what the Justice Department would later call “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in US history.” It was Bonnie Hanssen, wife of veteran FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who for more than 20 years had spied for the Russians, trading thousands of pages of national security secrets for $1.4m (£1.05m) in diamonds and cash. He was sentenced to life in prison, leaving behind his wife and six children.

“When she first called me, her husband had been arrested the night before. He needed a lawyer. I told her, ‘I’m not a criminal lawyer, but I can find you Plato Cacheris’,” she says, referring to the famous Washington criminal lawyer who’d represented Soviet spy Aldrich Ames years earlier. He took the case. And then Brookner took Bonnie’s. The main goal was ensuring that she receive the survivor’s portion of her husband’s pension, but “she also needed somebody by her side to help her fend off the journalists and ensure that people knew she was innocent”, Brookner says. “I had every media person, including Barbara Walters, taking me out to dinner, trying to get an interview with Bonnie, and Bonnie refused to talk to anyone.” Only after passing the Justice Department’s polygraph test and learning that the government had agreed to give her part of her husband’s pension did Hanssen consent to one interview. “I would just like to disappear,” she told the New York Times.

At any given time, Brookner juggled eight to 12 cases. Some closed in a couple of years, while others dragged on for a decade or longer. Special Agent Richard Horn spent 16 years suing the CIA and the State Department, alleging that his home had been illegally wiretapped while he was the Drug Enforcement Administration’s country attaché in Myanmar, also known as Burma, in the early 1990s. He hired Brian Leighton, a former federal prosecutor and longtime friend, and another lawyer. They filed a lawsuit against the CIA chief of station for Myanmar and the Department of State chief of mission at the embassy – and quickly realised that they needed help from someone with an understanding of both agencies and expertise in suing them. They asked Brookner to join as co-counsel. “She had a lot of moxie,” Leighton says. “She was not hesitant to go after them.”

In late 2009, the US government settled with Horn for $3m (£2.25m), according to news reports. By then, he’d been retired for nine years. “Rick was resentful that they ruined his career,” Brookner says. “Even though he got a lot of money, they wronged him, a dedicated DEA agent.” The State Department declined to comment for this story.

Most of her clients were like that. They’d devoted their careers, their personal lives, sometimes their safety, to protecting the country. Brookner understood what they wanted: justice, vindication, their jobs back. She spent nearly 10 years representing Karl Olson, a Foreign Service officer at the State Department who believed he’d received negative evaluations because of his sexual orientation. In 1994, Olson says, he was investigated as a “homosexual security risk” after showing a music video of RuPaul and Elton John performing “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” at a luncheon for colleagues at his home. He also says his boss handed him a fake $3 bill with Bill Clinton on the front and the phrase “Queer Reserve Note” written above “The Disgruntled States of America”. Brookner lost that one. The State Department disputed Olson’s contention that he had been discriminated against, and the case was dismissed at the court of appeals level, shortly before oral arguments were to begin, she says. “If it were something related to being a person of colour, rather than a $3 queer reserve note, they would have resolved it in my favour within about 15 minutes,” Olson says. “But this was something new, and somebody had to be first.”

In 1999, Brookner agreed to represent two federal meat inspectors, Patrick McHale and James Peterson, who had been suspended without pay after reporting safety and health violations at the US Department of Agriculture. “The only problem is, I couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer,” says McHale. “Janine said, ‘All I want you to do is pay out-of-pocket expenses. They’ll drag it out forever hoping you run out of money and give up’.”

They sued the USDA for monetary reimbursement for the period of their suspension, for full reinstatement, and for attorney fees, and after a nasty four-year battle, Brookner won the case in 2003 by tracking down witnesses and persuading them to testify. “You can actually recruit. You use agency skills,” she says. “The USDA put two lawyers on the case who tried to go after me in every way, but they lost because I had these two witnesses.” A spokesperson for the USDA would not comment on the case, but said in an email: “To the best of our knowledge, the parties involved are no longer at USDA.”

The celebration was fleeting. Two years later, after falling off the wagon and getting arrested for drunken driving, Peterson hanged himself. “I knew how stressful I had it,” says McHale. “I’m sure he had the same amount if not more. He was still working with the same supervisor!”

“A case we won ended up in real tragedy,” says Brookner regretfully. “I was shocked when Jim committed suicide. That was very difficult for me. When I took on a client, I knew they had to have the strength and emotional stability to pursue the case. A lot of people didn’t.”

In 2006, Sara pulled out a local news clipping she’d stashed in her desk drawer years earlier. The article was about a lawyer with an unlisted phone number who took on cases against the government. “I remember thinking, ‘If I ever need her, I’ll forget her name, so I’ll hang on to this’.” That lawyer was Brookner, and Sara suddenly required her services.

Two weeks before her marriage to a foreign journalist, Sara alleges, the CIA informed her that she’d have to choose: marry or keep her job. Like all agency officers, she had to report every foreign person she met and might continue to see. “It’s a counterintelligence measure,” Brookner says, “to prevent people from getting access to any agency employee, information or document”. Now Sara needed permission to marry her fiance. When the CIA balked, Sara says, she resigned, assuming that she’d be able to use her active security clearance to work as a contractor. “It didn’t work like that. They blackballed me,” she alleges. That was the end of her career.

By the time Sara called her, Brookner was working on a class-action lawsuit claiming systemic gender discrimination at the CIA regarding close and continuing relationships with foreign nationals. Some women in the group alleged that they were fired for having affairs with foreigners. One said she was let go because of a foreign relative’s professional connections. One career analyst and operations officer reported being put on paid administrative leave and investigated for allegedly having an inappropriate relationship with an intelligence officer in another service. Meanwhile, “men were having affairs all over the place”, Brookner says. “Men who had a relationship with a foreigner that they didn’t report got a slap on the hand, if anything. The women got fired. There’s a mentality in the agency that women can’t handle it; once you sleep with somebody, you’re vulnerable. But men can handle it, which is absurd.”

A judge dismissed the class action in 2010 for having too few members; there were about a dozen women involved. Brookner and a co-counsel went on to win settlements for a handful of clients who filed individual complaints. Only one woman got her job and security clearance back. Sara simply moved on. “I certainly wasn’t going to pay legal fees to fight my case. I didn’t think it was likely I would win,” she says. “If you didn’t have the money to fight the government, you were out of luck.”

After an acrimonious exit, Brookner has fought the CIA for decades on behalf of her clients 

Seven years ago, Brookner’s oncologist looked at her and asked, “What scares you more when you wake up at 3am? Having chemo or having cancer again?” She’d already undergone surgery to remove a mass in her breast, and now she had to decide whether to proceed with half a year of savage chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She did, and has been cancer-free ever since. “I’d meet her for lunch while she was going through it,” Sara says. “She never complained. She’s stoic. She’s a fighter. And she never, ever quits.”

These days, Brookner, now in her mid-70s, is battling kidney problems. And though she continues to receive a half-dozen calls a month, she’s accepting far fewer clients.

Still, she does take on some cases and consults on others. Recently, she helped Karen deLacy, a 32-year veteran operations officer who complained to the CIA last year about unfair treatment and gender discrimination. DeLacy had hired a different lawyer, but she reached out to Brookner as a fellow spy who had been through a similar kind of hell and back. “She gave me the courage to stay in the process,” deLacy recalls. After a year in the CIA’s internal remedy process, the agency “took appropriate action in response to my complaints” and deLacy retired with her reputation intact – and a Career Intelligence Medal. Without Brookner, “I’m pretty sure I would have quit the process and left the agency,” deLacy says.

Brookner also tells me that she has become involved in the case of the US officials who say they were the victims of mysterious “health attacks” in Havana, Cuba.. According to news reports, at least 22 people suffered symptoms including dizziness, headaches, brain injury, hearing and balance loss and difficulty concentrating. Four of the victims called Brookner. She says that her clients – who work for the State Department and the CIA and with whom she met last fall – experienced systematic neglect from their superiors in Washington both before and after leaving Cuba. “They called them snowflakes,” she alleges. “They didn’t believe them and waited too long to get their people medical attention. And so their delay and negligence made people’s conditions worse.” Brookner declined to grant me interviews with her clients for fear that they would lose their jobs. I did obtain the “Secrecy/Non-Disclosure Agreement” and “Security Guidance for Representatives” document that the CIA sent her in November 2017, seeking her signature, when it learned that she’d be representing one or more of its officers.

After some research, she decided that the best legal approach would be to sue the US government under the Federal Tort Claims Act for willful gross negligence and reckless conduct. A victory would not only mean money for her clients; the government would also have to take responsibility for its inaction.

A couple of months later, she hit a procedural snag: before filing a torts claim, her clients first had to file for workers’ compensation, and they didn’t need Brookner to do that. So for now, she says, the case is on hold – with circumstances that are far from ideal. “Workman’s comp is used for accidents at work. It favours the government. There’s no blame, no fault, nobody did anything wrong – and that’s not what happened,” she says. For Brookner, it’s a frustrating development preventing her from holding those in power accountable. But if her clients are denied compensation, you can bet that she will be waiting. “I’m very much a bulldog,” she says. “If you try to blow off clients of mine and treat them poorly, I’m there, ready to protect them.”

Washington Post

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments