Such incidents of arrogance and bigotry abound in this memoir. Yes, Rosemary Dew is a disgruntled former employee. Yes, she was unable to tough it out, and quit the FBI after 13 years as an agent and supervisor. Yes, she is angry and bitter, and it shows. But it would be a mistake to discount her testimony. For she makes the case that the insular, turf conscious, macho culture of the FBI, a culture that tolerates boorish and racist behavior and is closed to new ideas, is inextricably linked to some of its most grievous security lapses.
We now know, for instance, that the FBI’s outdated computer systems were at least partly responsible for the failure of internal investigators to recognize that Robert Hanssen was passing secrets to the Soviets, and for the inability of Bureau agents to share suspicious information they had about the al Qaeda hijackers before 9/11 with other investigators inside and outside the bureau. Without changes in that culture, Dew makes clear, such lapses are likely to recur.
Dew joined the FBI five years after it started hiring women agents. Harassment began almost immediately. During her rookie year at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., speakers addressing her class laced their lectures with dirty jokes and warnings to the ladies that working alongside men meant accepting their crude talk. One instructor, teaching a class how to load a gun, said that feeling for the hole in the cylinder was like feeling a woman’s vaginal area.
As Dew advanced from agent to supervisor, moving from field offices in San Francisco, to Washington, D.C., to Denver, she says she repeatedly encountered harassment. Her only respite: Two years spent at FBI headquarters in Washington, where she was treated with respect. But in the field offices, there was a steady stream of incidents: the agent who openly–without fear of rebuke–used foul sexual slang to refer to women agents; the supervisor who visited her home and wanted to have sex with her; and the frequent comments from co-workers and bosses that women weren’t up to the job. Colleagues and supervisors told her to develop a thick skin, laugh it off, and keep quiet. Dew quit.
Much of what Dew describes as wrong with the FBI is a direct legacy of J. Edgar Hoover’s 48-year paranoid reign. Under Hoover, the preservation of bureaucratic turf while maintaining an image of perfection mattered more than effectiveness. As an agent, Dew found a surprising lack of professionalism that actually put her at risk. In one incident–from which the title of her book No Backup is taken–she was given the potentially dangerous assignment of dropping off a package for a kidnapper in a dead-end alley. She was told that fellow agents were in hidden lookouts, and would swarm in and back her up if there were signs of trouble. She later learned the agents were in positions with no view of her, and planned to act only if they actually heard gunshots.
Her recommendations on how to fix the bureau are blunt. Improve internal affairs procedures and disciplinary standards; eliminate a double standard she claims lets high-ranking officials off the hook and unfairly punishes more junior employees. Investigate systemic problems and learn from them–transforming a culture of fear that promotes cover-ups. Narrow the bureau’s now overcommitted mission whose present responsibilities stretch from counterterrorism to bank robberies. Resolve the struggle for control between headquarters and field offices, a conflict that has stopped investigations in their tracks. And, of course, take action against employees who harass women and minorities.
Despite professional writing help, Dew’s storytelling sometimes lacks polish. Instead, the power of this memoir lies in its raw, authentic voice and first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of a troubled agency. It’s a voice that the intelligence community ignores at its own peril. And ours.