How one (female) CIA operative would fix our wars

By — November 25, 2012

While at the CIA, operative Nada Bakos wondered how she could present an angle on rape in war “so that somebody else other than just women would hear this message.”

Nada Bakos isn’t allowed to share most of what she learned in the CIA. But after nearly 10 years of working with classified intelligence, she can point squarely to one unfortunate lesson: Rape is used globally as a tool of war, and the United States tends to ignore it.

During her tenure at the agency, Bakos worked first as an analyst, then as an operative, focusing on “illicit networks” and counterterrorism. Though her role centered on Iraq, she was also privy to intel from Afghanistan. She says that the data she assessed gave her direct insight into what was happening abroad, and her reports to higher-ups helped shape foreign policy. Moreover, the information she was exposed to made her realize that the U.S. wasn’t taking preventative measures against gender-based violence in its own conflicts.

Now, as a consultant to NGOs and law enforcement agencies, she’s working more directly on issues of sexualized violence. In her current project, she’s helping domestic agencies fight human trafficking. (The State Department estimates that at least 14,500 people are trafficked to the U.S. annually.)

We talked with Bakos about sexualized violence and resulting tensions she’s seen in recent U.S. conflicts—and what she thinks, based on CIA intelligence, the government could have done to stop it.

Michele Lent Hirsch: Were you aware of rape as a tool of war before you joined the CIA, or only after?

Nada Bakos: Using sexualized violence in a conflict first came to my attention when I was in graduate school. I was volunteering with a women’s center and that topic came up. It wasn’t till I was working at the agency that I realized that this was much more pervasive than what I had imagined. We were obviously coming across information and data that proved that this was not something that was unique to one geography or one culture: This was pervasive throughout the globe and it was systemic.

MLH: Do you think the U.S. is addressing the problem?

NB: The U.S., as a matter of policy, often tries to interdict the import, export, or use of dangerous weapons by unstable powers or regimes. We don’t make the same effort for the weapon of sexualized violence. It’s replicated, taking on a vicious cycle of its own, only to be outdone by the next perpetrator. It crosses borders just like other weapons, yet it’s not taken as seriously. The problem isn’t just the tactic—it’s the ramifications of exporting and effectively normalizing a horrific tool of war, one of the true horrors that’s difficult to cover on the nightly news or in mainstream media.

MLH: Can you give me an example of a conflict where rape as a war tactic crossed borders?

NB: Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo show the cyclical nature of sexualized violence. During the Rwandan genocide, the Hutus used rape as a means of stripping Tutsi women of their dignity and identity. At the end of the conflict, both the Hutus and Tutsis had fled to the DRC to escape. While co-existing in the refugee camps, both groups accused the other of importing the cheap tactic of war—sexualized violence. Now DRC is considered home to one of the biggest rape crises in the world.

MLH: Is there a recent conflict of ours that you thought we did do a good job with, regarding rape prevention?

NB: If you’re talking about Iraq and Afghanistan and engaging in a war in both of those countries, that narrative [of sexualized violence] was not part of the [behind-the-scenes] dialogue. It’s, I think, an unfortunate outcome that the U.S. government is having to now pay attention to because of what is happening to women, especially in Afghanistan. But if we would have approached it initially, thinking, “We know that part of the manipulation from this group to the local populace is going to be using rape as a tool or weapon of war,” we could have approached the war very differently.

[In Iraq,] I think we maybe would have had the epiphany of the community engagement of the military on the ground earlier…rather than after things started to calm down in 2006 and 2007. Our lack of attention to rape will impede the healing of the societal wounds and rifts that are essential to longer-term stability.

MLH: First, tell me more about your perspective on Afghanistan.

NB: In Afghanistan, women continue to experience limited individual freedoms and very little protection against sexualized violence. Recent headlines recount stories of women raped and prosecuted as the victim. It’s known as “adultery by force”—they’re somehow found responsible for their own victimization. The Taliban has used sexualized violence to rule their respective territories during and post-conflict.

But had the United States viewed sexualized violence as a weapon of war after September 11th and not as a “cultural” issue, there may have been more prosecutions of the perpetrators—instead of the victims. Today we are leaving Afghanistan with the impression that we, too, find this to be the cultural norm and not a weapon of war.

MLH: And the community engagement you mentioned in Iraq—what if we had had that “epiphany” earlier on in the war?

NB: Especially when you look at Iraq, initially one of the biggest problems was that [women] couldn’t just live a normal life, couldn’t go to the store without being shot at, couldn’t just send [their] children to school without worrying about them getting blown up. So I think [using community engagement to address] basic personal safety issues would have better helped us understand the dynamic between those who were actually wanting to cause harm in the community and those who actually wanted to work with the United States.

MLH: Would Iraq have panned out differently had the U.S. thought ahead about the effects of rape?

NB: When you look at the irony of the conversations we were having shortly after we engaged in Iraq, that the local population is going to “embrace” us when we get there…. If we would’ve had awareness around manipulation of the local population and what happens when women are raped—to a family, to a community—if we would have been more cognizant of that, and not scratching our heads and going, “Well, why aren’t they embracing us? What’s wrong?” I think we certainly would have seen a different outcome. Especially for the first three years.

MLH: Hearing what you’re saying, and after reporting on mass rape in places like Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur, I can’t help but think, How is it possible that various U.S. government agencies don’t prepare for, and try to prevent, mass rape as a war tactic?

NB: I do think it’s ironic, because we talk about chemical and biological weapons [CBW]. And if you think about the numbers of CBW attacks versus how much rape as a weapon of war has changed society—I mean it’s not even a comparison. Military planners, government officials, foreign policy experts, and the intelligence community need to include the protection of women and families in the narrative for during and post conflict. If our goal is to create stable, inclusive sovereignty for all countries—particularly those looking to regain their footing in the immediate aftermath of a conflict—it’s in our national interest to protect women during conflicts, reconcile violent confrontations, and help women rebuild their lives after attacks.

MLH: Looking back, do you think that your female peers at the agency were more aware of this than your male peers? Or was awareness not divided by gender?

NB: Certainly, the dialogue that I had around that was with mainly women analysts—not saying that men weren’t also in agreement, but that was something that was more top-of-mind to us. I started thinking, how can I present an angle so that somebody else other than just women would hear this message, that people that make decisions within the context of national security would hear this message? I think [if we make] sectors like Special Forces aware of this, and especially within the leadership culture…maybe people will listen if they help drive that narrative a little. And they’re “macho” enough that men will listen to them!

MLH: In your decade of work at the agency, did you see at least somewhat of a shift in the U.S.’ foreign policy approach?

NB: Female engagement teams [which were first deployed in 2010] made a huge difference. These were women in the U.S. military engaging with women of the local populations—getting more information than any man walking into those areas could ever possibly get. That’s actually a huge, fundamental shift. And I hope that is something that stays within the purview of how the military engages with any country, because that gives an entirely different point of view.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Paragraph six has been edited to clarify when Bakos was first exposed to the idea of sexualized violence in conflict.