Political Animal

The CIA Officer Who Became a “Formidable Foe” of the U.S. Government

Janine Brookner, who battled communist spies and boorish male bureaucrats alike during a pioneering career as a CIA officer and later became a fierce advocate for women and whistleblowers in the intelligence community, died May 11 after a long struggle with kidney disease, “fueled at the end by a highly aggressive cancer,” according to her longtime companion Colin Thompson. She was 80.

“She was an exemplary CIA case officer and then a lawyer who represented men and women employees of the U.S. government, often successfully, seeking redress from a government that had treated them unethically and unfairly,” Thompson, a retired former senior CIA officer himself, told SpyTalk. Recently, Brookner had been representing victims of the so-called “Havana Syndrome,” a mysterious disease thought to be caused by directed energy weapon targeting State Department and CIA officers.

“She was as hard as nails and full of passion,” said her son, Steven, the founder and principal officer of Radiance Structured Finance in Arlington, Va.

Brookner’s first overseas CIA assignment was in the Philippines. She also served in Thailand in the mid-1970s, at a time when South Vietnam and Cambodia were being overrun by communist forces and refugees were flowing over the border. She later served as a deputy CIA station chief in Caracas and as a CIA branch chief in Manhattan across the street from the United Nations.

But it was during her tour as chief of the CIA’s station in Jamaica where her longtime clandestine life became public—and not in a good way. After disciplining a few subordinates for misconduct, she came under investigation by the agency’s inspector general, who backed up the malcontents in its report on her. Her high flying career crashed and burned.

“A rare rising star among female officers in the agency’s covert-operations directorate,” Brookner “saw her reputation destroyed in 1992 after she was portrayed as a heavy drinker who sexually harassed men. Her accusers were subordinates whom she had disciplined for misconduct at the C.I.A.’s station in Jamaica,” the New York Times reported.

One of her accusers was her male deputy, whom she had reported to her superiors “for repeatedly beating his wife unconscious,” the Times’ Tim Weiner reported. Another accuser was one of her underling case officers, “a woman whom she had reported for drunkenness and psychological problems.” Other accusations against her included complaints that she wore “brief shorts and thin T-shirts,” making “some men believe she might make a pass” at them, the Times reported.

Such observations, along with falsehoods and contradictory statements gathered by the Justice Department, caused the case against her to collapse. Brookner filed suit against the CIA, which eventually settled with her for $410,000.

But her career was effectively over.

“The promise of a Prague assignment disappeared, she was frozen out of any serious CIA position in Washington, those in the hierarchy she thought were friends distanced themselves from her, and she learned that the few people who had questioned the IG’s actions had been threatened if they interfered with the investigation,” Thompson related.

“Janine discussed her situation with friends and made some decisions,” he added. “First, she would sue the CIA for sexual discrimination. Then, she would resign from the CIA once the suit was over, no matter the outcome. Finally, she would become a lawyer so she could help CIA and other government employees protect themselves from unjust treatment by the government.

“There has never been a shortage of that,” he added.

Brookner began law school classes at night during her struggle with the CIA, earning a degree from George Washington University Law School in1998.

“When I first met her, she was a newly minted, fresh-out-of-law-school, green lawyer,” recalled Mark Zaid, a prominent Washington, D.C. attorney for CIA, State Department, and military whistleblowers. ”But I immediately thought to myself what a formidable foe she is going to be against the U.S. government. She had professional intelligence experiences I will never have, and coupled with her new legal skills, she was potentially going to be the IC’s worst nightmare.”

Another thing about Brookner struck Zaid.

“To some extent, she operated her law practice much in the way she acted as a spy—shrouded in secrecy. She never sought the limelight. She never sought to dominate an arena even though she likely could have if she had wanted to do so. She mostly tried to help people behind the scenes quietly.

“When The Washington Post published a profile of her a few years ago in which I was quoted,” Zaid added, “I had individuals contacting me searching for her, but she was nowhere to be found—no office address. No published phone number. No available email. She was a true spy lawyer.”

And a good one, it turned out.

“The CIA, State Department and Department of Agriculture are probably sorry they ever crossed paths with her,” says Thompson, who had a long and distinguished CIA career that included dangerous assignments in wartime Laos. She won cases against “young Department of Justice attorneys wearing expensive suits and projecting airs of importance and superiority,” he said.

Not long after she was admitted to the New York bar, “she took on a pro bono immigration case involving a man and his family from Colombia who were under death threats from Colombian rebels,” Thompson recalled. “The man was in the U.S. and wanted to stay, but his wife and children remained in Columbia. The INS wanted none of them in the U.S.”

“In Janine’s case, though, these hot shots faced a lawyer who always did her homework and presented a complete and well-founded legal appeal,” Thompson said. “The judge did not hesitate in ruling in her clients’ favor, and they have since become U.S. citizens. Janine won because she was better prepared.“

But many in the CIA’s old guard never got over her sex discrimination victory over them, Thompson recalled.

Not long after she won her case, he said, “George Kalaris, a former very senior CIA officer and friend and mentor to Janine, died. She and I acted as honorary pallbearers at George’s funeral. We had just taken our seats in the crowded church, when a voice belonging to a man who had once been George’s deputy in the CIA’s Soviet division, clearly declared: ‘What’s she doing here?’

“The CIA had not forgotten or forgiven her,” Thompson said. “It never would. In spite of this treatment, Janine always was a better advocate for the CIA and its missions than those who railed at her for standing up to the CIA.”

Abigail Jones, a New York writer, featured Brookner in two pieces, most recently for The Washington Post Sunday Magazine in 2018.  “I’ll never forget sitting in her living room in Georgetown and watching her snuggle with her Maltese as she told stories about becoming the first female CIA station chief in Latin America and, later, the first person to sue the CIA and win for sexual discrimination,” Jones told SpyTalk. She called Brookner “an advance guard of the Me Too movement long before it existed in its current form,” and said, “she leaves an extraordinary impact on generations of women—and men—at the CIA and other government agencies.”

In a previous Newsweek piece, Brookner told Jones about landing her first job as a case officer—the men and women who recruit spies—in Asia. In the late 1960s, most women were shunted into lower rung, if important, jobs as analysts and reports officers.

Brookner said her station chief saddled her with “ridiculous” paperwork and assignments. “In the meantime, I went out and met people. I used my training and background. By the time my next chief of station got there, I knew people from the presidential palace all the way to the Communist Party. I was in my 20s—this little blond woman. No one ever suspected who I worked for,” she said.

“She was better than the opposition,” Colin Thompson said. “That was a hallmark of her life and her career.”

Want to Stem the Migration from Central America? There’s a Better Way.

The surge of migrants continues at America’s southern border. According to recent data, Customs and Border Protection has seen a staggering 71 percent increase in encounters since February alone and the U.N. announced that nearly 300 minors are entering Mexico every day in hopes of reaching the U.S. Many of these migrants make the treacherous journey to the U.S. when they confront violence, corruption, and lack of regular employment in their own country.

Our research has shown that the only sustainable way to fully address this crisis then, is to support and fund programs that address job growth, crime reduction, and corruption in Central America. In fact, Vice President Kamala Harris has an upcoming meeting with Guatemala’s President to discuss solutions to stem the tide, including direct cash payments to Central American countries. But just relying on these kinds of funding mechanisms is in many ways antiquated and not the right path forward.

To bring about real, lasting change across the globe, and address the root causes of migration from Central America, the Biden administration should change the way that we fund long-term development. One promising yet little discussed solution: start using endowment funding that can be game-changing for global security challenges while helping to reduce inequality. An endowment is a mechanism where money can be invested, so that income generated from that investment can be used for a specific purpose. USAID could establish individual endowments with partner organizations, so that there will be more sustainable funding sources for our global priorities.

Our current system of providing short-term grants is deeply flawed. These days, grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and U.S. Department of State to non-profits, universities, and organizations are often issued for just two to three years. This funding comes with the expectation that the programs be sustained even after the USAID spigot is turned off. This ignores the reality that the political environment and context in countries may change, funds will dry up after the grant period, and the funding itself could change at any time during implementation.

Politics in the U.S. is making this type of investment even more challenging. In recent years, the inability of Democrats and Republicans to agree upon a national budget has led to government shutdowns and gaps in the ability to implement aid programs. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the efforts to fund for global development because of the safety and security of Americans abroad and at home. This is no way to do development work.

Universities, particularly those in the U.S., offer the Biden administration a new model.

The endowments for many U.S. universities continue to perform well in 2020. The pandemic positions universities as a key proponent of change and encouraging alumni donations for these global priorities. Let’s put these trends to work for the global good.

Congress should once again permit grants as endowments to organizations that do global development work, particularly U.S. universities. Regular grants get expended in a just few years. But it’s difficult to measure the impact of any program long-term when there is no funding left. On the other hand, endowments can generate income that can be used to sustain, measure, and fund new priorities in the future. Under the right conditions, endowments could also be managed by organizations in lower-middle-income economies to strengthen local stakeholders, either independently or in partnership with U.S. universities.

This approach is not new. Back in the 1990s, USAID had blanket authority to fund endowments, but only with local currency. That introduced new problems because when local currencies lost their value, USAID didn’t receive any reliable earnings to fund its work. But a simple change can avoid that issue altogether. Unfortunately, Congress removed USAID’s blanket endowment authority in the mid-1990s.

Today, USAID permits endowments on a case-by-case basis, which is what happened recently with the Promote Scholarship Program awarded to the Borlaug Institute at Texas A&M University. In the 2015 Congressional appropriation, USAID was given specific authority to fund scholarships for women in Afghanistan. The Promote Scholarship Program does precisely that and allowed Texas A&M to receive a substantial investment from the federal government. With the federal money, these endowments can work. In the last 15 years, the Texas A&M Foundation’s endowment fund has had an average 8.7 percent annual rate of return.

This could and should be a new tool for USAID and other entitles that already partner significantly with universities. If the endowments are used in the right context and with the requirement for good management and support of USAID purposes, it’s a win-win (there is no using endowment income for a new sports stadium). USAID gets university partners to work on more sustainable global development efforts to protect American security interests while generating university endowment income to run and evaluate the effectiveness of the programs long-term.

The Biden administration and Congress should reinstate the blanket authority, giving USAID and the State Department the power to issue endowments that fully serve the purpose of U.S. goals abroad.

Fighting the Big Grocery Monopoly

In March, the National Grocers Association (NGA), a trade association representing independent grocery stores, released a white paper detailing the ways dominant retailers abuse their market power over suppliers and marginalize small grocers. The pandemic exacerbated these abuses, the group argues, citing practices such as Big Box retailers demanding priority access to products in short supply, while smaller stores were frozen out. The group calls for enforcing antimonopoly laws, including the long-dormant Robinson-Patman Act, to address what it deems “economic discrimination.”

Passed in 1936, Robinson-Patman was intended to preserve the viability and diversity of smaller retailers by ensuring that the big chain stores did not engage in price discrimination and other unfair business practices. For example, it makes it illegal for suppliers to charge small retailers more than they charge the big chains for the same product.

The NGA argues that it is time to revive Robinson-Patman and other antimonopoly statutes. “The lack of antitrust enforcement has handicapped competition in the grocery sector and harmed American consumers,” said Chris Jones, NGA’s senior vice president of government relations. “Economic discrimination is, in fact, a problem that extends well beyond our industry … [We’re calling] on Congress and the federal government to modernize and enforce the antitrust laws.”

Smaller, family- or employee-owned grocery stores sell 25 percent of all groceries and play a unique role in the grocery market. According to the USDA, rural areas and low-income communities left behind by chain stores tend to rely more on these independent food retailers. New or local food suppliers may also get their start selling to independent grocers before growing into larger distribution, the NGA’s white paper argues.

While studies find that independent grocers can offer competitive or even lower prices on fresh produce compared to Big Box stores, their packaged goods tend to be more expensive. This partially stems from the fact the largest retailers, called “power buyers,” can negotiate price concessions from packaged goods manufacturers.

This discrepancy in buyer power has dramatically expanded with grocery consolidation. As recently as 1997, Americans bought 20 percent of all groceries from the top four retailers. By 2019, the top four retailers claimed 43 percent of all sales, with Walmart alone capturing 1 in every 4 dollars spent on groceries. Amazon’s online grocery sales also tripled during the pandemic, just as the e-commerce goliath expands its network of brick-and-mortar Amazon Fresh grocery stores.

At a certain point, suppliers feel pressure to accept less favorable terms or offer special perks to dominant buyers because they cannot afford to lose their business. These deals go beyond justifiable bulk discounts that reflect genuine savings from say, delivering an order large enough to fill a truck.

“The heart and soul of this whole issue of economic discrimination is the notion that corporations can win solely on the basis of their size, not by competing in a better way, but simply by being larger,” explains Stacy Mitchell, the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “The vast majority of the superior pricing and terms that Walmart is getting are a product of its muscle, not of superior efficiency.”

Both Mitchell and the NGA emphasized that independent grocers often join buying clubs to buy goods by the truckload, thereby creating efficient volumes for suppliers. But even then, they cannot get the same deals as Big Box stores with gatekeeper power. Suppliers need to be on Walmart’s shelves or Amazon’s marketplace to access customers; they don’t need to have a presence in a smattering of local shops in the same way.

“Under the threat of losing business from those power buyers, which in some cases have 35 to 40 percent or more of the manufacturer’s total sales, … those [suppliers] are being forced to their demands,” said David Smith, president of Associated Wholesale Grocers. “Because demand squeezes those suppliers, higher prices and less product availability are forced upon those that remain.” In other words, smaller grocers not only miss out on better deals, but they sometimes pay higher prices or receive worse treatment as manufacturers make up the difference of concessions made to power buyers.

For instance, in September 2020 during the middle of the pandemic and widespread product shortages, Walmart implemented a 3% cost-of-goods penalty on any supplier that did not deliver 98% of its order in full and on time. “This was at a time when overall industry service level inbound was only about 85%,” explained Smith. “So, if you are a supplier that can only provide 85% of what your customers are ordering and your most significant customer … demands 98%, where does that improvement come from? Well, we know that it amounts to a shortage to the others that are out there.”

Indeed, CNN reported this spring that smaller grocers still struggle to secure a sufficient supply of highly demanded products, including toilet paper, canned goods, and cleaning supplies.

“During the pandemic, providing for our friends and neighbors got even harder, because our larger competitors were illegally taking away our access to important stock items,” said Jimmy Wright, owner of Wright’s Market in Opelika, Ala. “Opelikans were forced to make an extra trip to the nearest big chain when they preferred to shop locally … and wanted to limit their trips to public places.”

Here, Wright alleges that this differential treatment of small stores by suppliers violates the long-unused Robinson-Patman Act. Under Robinson-Patman, suppliers cannot offer preferential prices or terms to dominant customers, unless they reflect a genuine difference in the cost of doing business with them.

But price discrimination persists because federal agencies have not enforced the law for decades. “The FTC and the DOJ quietly put [the Robinson-Patman Act] up on a shelf somewhere,” said Mitchell. “They overturned a law without involving Congress.”

Since the 1970s, a growing body of antitrust scholars have argued that the anti-discrimination statutes in Robinson-Patman are inefficient and prevent retailers from offering the lowest possible prices. In 2007, a congressionally chartered commission even recommended repealing the law entirely.

To be sure, even proponents of Robinson-Patman have acknowledged in congressional hearings over the years that the law contains critical ambiguities and should be improved. But the NGA argues that the low prices power buyers receive are “sub-competitive,” or below those that would exist in a competitive market, since they are set by domination, rather than fair negotiation. This ultimately harms grocery market competition by putting some stores at a disadvantage solely because of their size.

NGA’s report calls on Congress to investigate discriminatory and anti-competitive conduct in the grocery sector and to restore the original intent of the Robinson-Patman Act to make it enforceable again. “It has been almost 100 years since the last law was passed here, so it could need some updating in the long run,” said Jones.

As FDA Readies Menthol Cigarette Ban, What’s Next?

This spring, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a ban on menthol cigarettes.

The move was hailed as a boon to the health of Black smokers, 85 percent of whom use mentholated brands such as Kool, Newport, or Salem (which come in green packs to denote their minty flavor). In contrast, under a third of white smokers choose menthol, the rest preferring regular brands, such as Marlboro (so-called red packs). Given the difference in population size, there are more white menthol smokers than Black menthol smokers.

White and Black smokers are at risk from using cigarettes of any kind. But Black smokers are more likely to die from tobacco-related illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) even though the 2019 smoking prevalence was virtually the same for whites (15.5 percent) and blacks (14.9 percent), perhaps owing to other health-related issues, such as lesser quality of care, and other factors.

“We’re being liberated from the harm of mentholated tobacco products,” said Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of The Center for Black Health & Equity. “It’s about time we prioritize the health and well-being of African Americans,” was the response of the NAACP to the proposed FDA ban.

“This is a major step forward in Saving Black Lives,” exclaimed the head of The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, which sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year to ban menthol.

Not every civil rights leader is a fan. According to the Washington Post, “the Rev. Al Sharpton, says it would be discriminatory to outlaw a product that is especially popular among African Americans.”

Yet there is strong consensus among public health experts that the ban will “reduce health disparities and promote health equity,“ as the FDA put it.

There’s reason to be wary of that claim, however, and to consider the possible unintended side effects of well-meaning regulation. First, attempts to improve public health by bans of widely used products – and addictive products, in particular – have a bad track record. The war on drugs and alcohol prohibition, which drove users into the arms of criminal dealers and unsafe markets with their riskier substances, stand as object lessons.

In reality, the enormous public health success of reduced smoking – now at an estimated 14 percent of U.S. adults (34.1 million “current smokers,” or 1 in 14 ) down from 20.9 percent in 2005 and down from 42 percent in 1964—did not come from cigarette bans or outlawing various forms of tobacco—snuff, chew, pipe, roll-your-own, etc.

The decline came not through bans, but through education, public persuasion, and policy nudges and changes, starting with a series of articles about research on the dangers of smoking published in the ‘50s in Readers’ Digest, the most read publication at the time. In 1964, the landmark report of the Surgeon General highlighted health risks, prominently cancer and heart disease. This was followed two years later by health warnings on cigarette packages. (Here are the nudges and changes.) The ‘70s saw restrictions on tobacco advertising on television and radio. Higher state and local taxes on cigarettes followed in the late 1980s as did a federal law banning smoking on domestic airlines. In the ‘90s, a massive lawsuit waged by 46 state attorneys general against tobacco companies led to the demise of “Joe Camel” and other ad campaigns, which were understood to be aimed at kids. And many states outlawed smoking in workplaces and restaurants starting in the mid-1990s.

The move to ban menthol-flavored tobacco products has been underway for at least three decades. In the late 1980s, the late U.S. Representative and civil rights leader John Lewis decried cigarette billboards in poor, inner cities and in 1990, George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Louis Sullivan condemned a new menthol brand from Reynolds called “Uptown,” which was being test-marketed in Philadelphia, as “slick and sinister.” As early as the 1950s, the tobacco industry advertised menthol brands, most notably Kool and Salem, in the Black press with the rise of African-American publications, such as Ebony and Jet.

Would a menthol ban be a fruitless effort to reduce smoking among menthol consumers, who represent the majority of Black smokers? We can’t be sure. Some fraction of menthol smokers will quit under pressure, some with the aid of nicotine patches or gum, estimated to help between six and 20 percent of smokers. After the European Union banned menthol last May, for example, eight percent had quit as of October. More optimistically, one in five Canadian menthol smokers quit between 2016 and 2017 after seven provinces instituted a menthol ban. That’s a not-insignificant figure, but still not enough to claim a public health victory.

But the remaining menthol users will either migrate to regular cigarettes, as many did following the Canadian ban, or MacGyver their own menthol smokes by putting regular cigarettes in a plastic bag with menthol flavor cards or adding menthol drops to the filter.

Others, finally, will douse their cravings by patronizing the underground mentholated market—a problem cited by the ACLU and other justice groups that oppose the ban, pointing to the case of Eric Garner, a black man from Staten Island who died in a police chokehold in 2014 while being arrested on suspicion of selling bootleg “loosie” cigarettes.

The second reason the ban is likely doomed is because it offers no alternatives. “You don’t start out forcing people to change unhealthy behaviors in such a radical way unless they know there are other, less hazardous options,” says David Sweanor, an adjunct professor of law at University of Ottawa and a veteran anti-smoking advocate. “Social justice and paternalism don’t mix.”

Sweanor makes a convincing argument. When it comes to menthol, smokers need more than a ban. They need to know about reduced-harm nicotine products that can help where gum and patches have failed.

Although nicotine is an addictive substance, it is considered otherwise safe when consumed by healthy people. Contrary to myth, cancer is not caused by nicotine but by the tars generated by combusted (burned) tobacco.

Briefly, reduced-harm nicotine products include electronic cigarettes, a battery-powered device that heats a flavored solution containing nicotine and converts it into an inhalable, or “vape-able,” aerosol. E-cigarettes are ninety to 95 percent less hazardous than cigarettes and currently undergoing the review process at the FDA. Concern about recruitment of young people to smoking is not borne out by data. In fact, youth smoking rates, which have been declining for decades, dropped more steeply in the years that teen vaping increased most, between 2013 and 2019, reaching a record low in 2020 of 4.6 percent.

Other such products include a form of FDA-sanctioned smokeless tobacco, “snus,” which comes in tiny packets that fit between the upper lip and gum. Unlike older forms of chewing tobacco and moist snuff, spit-less snus has very low-levels of tobacco-specific nitrosamines, the known carcinogen in traditional oral tobacco. In Sweden, where most of the men who use a tobacco product use snus, smoking deaths are significantly lower than in all other EU countries. The country has the lowest rate of lung cancer among men in the EU, and the risk of oral and head and neck cancers is negligible.

Zyn, pending FDA review, also comes in an oral pouch but contains pharmaceutical grade nicotine-containing material. There is no tobacco at all in Zyn.

Lastly, there are FDA-reviewed heat-not-burn devices, which are enormously popular in Japan as a safer alternative. The apparatus uses a blade to heat compressed tobacco that comes in the form of a stick that is inserted into a battery-powered device resembling a cigarette. Heat-not-burn products yield an average 90 percentreduction of 37 harmful and potentially harmful contaminants compared to standard cigarettes.

All these harm-reduction products come in menthol versions.

If menthol users felt empowered to switch to less harmful products, more would almost surely stop smoking cigarettes. The problem, however, is that high-profile public health agencies such as the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention, as well as major anti-smoking organizations, including the American Lung Association, have downplayed or starkly misrepresented the comparative health benefits of such products.

As for the menthol ban, it is still years away because the FDA rulemaking process is so slow.

For now, let’s assume it’s headed toward approval and implementation. During that lag, public health agencies should be working overtime to educate menthol smokers about the relative-to-cigarettes benefits of reduced-harm products.

If menthol smokers became menthol vapers, menthol smokeless and Zyn users, or menthol heat-not-burn menthol users, a vast improvement in public health would be underway—one disproportionately favoring Black smokers. Complete abandonment of smoking entirely would yield better health outcomes but that’s not going to happen.

But there is another, overlooked element in the campaign against mentholated tobacco. Namely, how it fails to mention white smokers. While Black smokers appear to sustain greater mortality from smoking-related disorders as a group, whites represent the biggest afflicted population. Their absolute numbers exceed those of Black smokers.

True health “social justice,” therefore, would impel public health advocates to prohibit cigarettes altogether, not just menthol bans. But that is no more likely than a return to alcohol prohibition. Thanks to a landmark 2009 law that says that the FDA cannot ban cigarettes per se, the agency can only take incremental steps like this menthol ban.

This twist of regulatory fate means that menthol smokers will be given a powerful incentive that could actually get them to quit smoking cigarettes — but only if health agencies promote reduced-harm options like vaping through education campaigns rather than just assume menthol-deprived smokers will go cold turkey or quit with nicotine patches and gum.

Whether the menthol ban experiment succeeds or founders depends upon public health agencies spelling out—accurately and clearly—the relative risks of reduced-harm options versus traditional cigarettes. “Pragmatism will trump absolutism,” promises Sweanor.

Otherwise, menthol smokers, deprived of a product to which they are addicted, will scramble to get it elsewhere without being guided to safer nicotine alternatives. At worst, menthol smokers, Black and white, will endanger themselves. There is no social justice in that.