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 some kind of 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.”