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Mother, Daughter, Sister, Spy Examines Women’s Role in Intelligence

From left to right: Panelists Lena Sisco, Jonna Hiestand Mendez, Melissa Mahle and Mary Beth Long with moderator Ellen Nakashima. Photo credit: Susan Hoffman.

By Susan Hoffman
Contributor, In Homeland Security

On Wednesday, Oct. 2, the International Spy Museum held its fourth annual “Mother, Daughter, Sister, Spy” panel in their new state-of-the-art building that offered a sweeping panorama of Washington, D.C. Sponsored by American Military University, the event drew a large group of attendees, including AMU staff and faculty.

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Moderated by The Washington Post’s national security reporter, Ellen Nakashima, the panel featured an inspirational group of trailblazing, highly accomplished women:

  • Lena Sisco, former Department of Defense certified military interrogator, Naval Human Intelligence Officer and author of “You’re Lying! Secrets from an Expert Military Interrogator to Spot the Lies and Get to the Truth”
  • Jonna Hiestand Mendez, former Chief of Disguise in the CIA’s Office of Technical Service and co-author of “Argo,” “The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics that Helped America Win the Cold War,” and “Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations that Helped Win the Cold War”
  • Melissa Mahle, former U.S. intelligence officer, Middle East/counterterrorism expert and author of “Denial and Deception: An Insider’s View of the CIA from Iran-Contra to 9/11”
  • The Honorable Mary Beth Long, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, former Chair of NATO’s High-Level Group and International Spy Museum Board Member

Mother, Daughter, Sister, Spy Panelists Discuss Gender-Related Career Obstacles

One of the questions Nakashima asked dealt with how being female had played a role in their intelligence careers and how they overcame gender-related career obstacles in their service to the nation. Several of the panelists told meaningful, often humorous stories of how they handled being a woman in a primarily male-dominated field and dealing with chauvinistic stereotypes about women’s professional capabilities.

Long noted that earlier in her career, women were told on their first day that they would be reports officers and act as liaisons, rather than case officers. She said, “I refused to be trained as a reports officer because I wanted to be a case officer and recruit spies. I had a female mentor who trained me.”

Mahle faced similar low expectations from her male colleagues. She was recruited by the CIA as a case officer and asked by a superior where she wanted to serve. Mahle expressed her desire to be sent to the Middle East due to her intimate knowledge of that region and her Arabic language skills. Her boss was initially reluctant because women had not served in that area, advising her to rethink the assignment’s location, but Mahle was determined.

“I was sent to the Middle East,” Mahle noted, “but the feeling was, ‘She won’t like it, and she’ll come back asking to be reassigned to Paris.’” Instead, Mahle proved her superiors wrong by excelling in the position.

Mendez advised ignoring naysayers and focusing on job performance: “Just put your head down and do a better job than the men.”

During their careers, all of the panelists dealt with unfair accusations of sleeping with their superiors for career advancement. In referring to such incidents, Sisco noted that she ignored such hurtful incidents, saying, “You don’t need to prove anything. The people who matter know what really happened.”

Long added, “The most satisfaction comes from knowing that you’re saving lives and getting bad people off the street.”

Being Female Also Proved Advantageous in Some Situations

In some intelligence situations, being female was an advantage. Sisco noted that her non-threatening appearance made it easier to interrogate detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Sisco remarked on the trust she built with detainees: “Being a woman made it easier for me to interrogate people. I was empathetic and genuine, so detainees had a more open mind and some of them even requested to work specifically with me. I was able to connect with them, build trust and collect intelligence information that would help us avoid the next attack or the next hunger strike.”

Communication and Authenticity Are Vital

After the panel concluded, the panelists took questions from the audience. One audience member asked about active-listening skills, saying, “In your line of work, you’re not listening to respond; you’re listening to understand. What advice would you offer to people who want to improve their skills in this area?”

Sisco noted that it’s important to listen actively and be observant, saying, “People won’t confess unless they want to. Pay attention to what people are doing; is it congruent with what they’re saying?”

Long and Mahle added that it’s also vital to demonstrate authenticity to communicate with others. Long noted: “Open yourself up to them. Their defenses will go down and that’s when you’ll build rapport.”

Dr. Kate Brannum, Program Director of Security and Global Studies, also remarked on the difference that the panelists’ communication skills in explaining new technologies made to male colleagues. “What I thought was really interesting was that it was an advantage being a woman because the men were more willing to admit they didn’t know how to use the technology. I thought that was fascinating.”

The evening also included a pre-programmatic informal presentation to Chris Costa, Executive Director of the International Spy Museum and an AMU alumnus. Costa received recognition as a University Ambassador who continues to make a difference by his support of AMU and the overall intelligence community.

AMU staff and faculty members were on hand at “Mother, Daughter, Sister, Spy” to discuss the University’s doctoral programs and other academic programs with interested attendees. For more information about the Doctor of Global Security and Doctor of Strategic Intelligence programs, call 877-755-2787 or email

Susan Hoffman is a Managing Editor at Edge, whose articles have appeared in multiple publications. Susan is known for her expertise in blogging, social media, SEO, and content analytics, and she is also a book reviewer for Military History magazine. She has a B.A. cum laude in English from James Madison University and an undergraduate certificate in electronic commerce from American Public University.

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