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Janine Brookner, ousted CIA officer who challenged agency in court, dies at 80

Janine Brookner in her office in 2018.
Janine Brookner in her office in 2018.Benjamin C Tankersley/For The Washington Post

For 20 years, Janine Brookner worked out of U.S. embassies around the world, attending diplomatic gatherings, meeting people and developing friendships. She was barely 5 feet tall, with an unlined face and gentle smile that made her look years younger than her actual age.

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 Ms. 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 to the United States. She was among the few women to ascend the ranks of the department, until her career was derailed in the 1990s over what turned out to be false accusations of professional misconduct.

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Ms. Brookner, who had a long legal battle with the CIA and later became a lawyer who specialized in protecting federal employees against mistreatment, died May 11 at a hospital in Washington. She was 80.

She had kidney disease and had recently developed an aggressive form of cancer, said her former husband, Colin Thompson.

Ms. Brookner was still in her 20s 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 Filipino 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,” Ms. Brookner told the Syracuse Post-Standard in 1998. “Maybe as caretakers for a family, women can be good at developing that trust.”

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She had an exemplary record in later postings in Thailand, Venezuela and New York, where she monitored United Nations delegations from Communist countries.

"She was amazingly successful," George Kalaris, her station chief in Manila, told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. "She was one of the best officers I had."

When Ms. 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.”

Ms. 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; and she 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 on expense reports and misusing agency vehicles.

Ms. 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 afterward, 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 Ms. 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 barroom rant for which she had admonished a lower-ranking officer and of wearing provocative clothing “with no perceptible underwear.”

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

One of the stranger complaints against Ms. Brookner was that she had cooked a Thanksgiving turkey on agency time in preparation for an official dinner.

While battling the charges, Ms. Brookner was relegated to a cell-like office with no windows or telephone at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. 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 U.S. 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 Ms. 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 a life sentence in federal prison.

Ms. 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 lawsuit alleging that Ms. Brookner had been the victim of a “pervasive atmosphere of machismo and sexual discrimination.”

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"Apart from the Marines," journalist and CIA historian Tim Weiner told The Washington Post Magazine in 2018, "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 Ms. Brookner of making sexual advances toward a fellow CIA officer, but the account was amended to say she had approached a visiting agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

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

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

But Ms. 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.

"All the accusations made against her came from people she'd disciplined," Toensing told The Post in 2004.

In the end, no charges were filed, but Ms. 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.

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Janine Marilyn Okun was born Dec. 26, 1940, in Syracuse. Her father worked in newspaper circulation, and her mother was a real estate broker.

Ms. Brookner married soon after high school, then graduated in 1964 from Russell Sage College in Troy, N.Y. 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.

Her marriages to Howard Brookner and Colin Thompson, a former CIA officer, ended in divorce. Survivors include a son from her first marriage, Steven Brookner of Arlington, Va.; a daughter from her second marriage, Tam Scribner of Washington; and five grandchildren.

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.

"If this hadn't happened," she said in 1998 of her ouster from the agency, "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 State Department official who was declared a security risk because of his sexual orientation.

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 Bonnie Hanssen knew nothing of her husband’s activities, Brookner focused on seeing that she receive the pension benefits to which she was entitled.

“She also needed somebody by her side to help her fend off the journalists and ensure that people knew she was innocent,” Brookner said.

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,” she said. “And I got it.”