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In her thirteen years as special agent for the FBI, Rosemary Dew worked undercover against criminals, spies, and terrorists, earning eight commendations for her service. Despite her achievements, for her entire tenure she remained the subject of severe discrimination and even sexual harassment that the bureau seemed to condone rather than condemn. In elegant and deeply felt prose, Dew argues that this climate of corruption and duplicity not only taints the experience of the FBI's few female agents but also leads ...
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In her thirteen years as special agent for the FBI, Rosemary Dew worked undercover against criminals, spies, and terrorists, earning eight commendations for her service. Despite her achievements, for her entire tenure she remained the subject of severe discrimination and even sexual harassment that the bureau seemed to condone rather than condemn. In elegant and deeply felt prose, Dew argues that this climate of corruption and duplicity not only taints the experience of the FBI's few female agents but also leads directly to some of the bureau's most harmful failures, such as the remarkable intelligence breakdown that allowed spy Robert Hanssen to operate undetected for more than two decades. Narrated by one of the most successful— and one of the only—women in the bureau's history, No Backup is a startling look at the destructive and discriminatory culture that dominates one of America's most powerful agencies, as well as an impassioned plea to an organization that must reform itself.
Let us face reality. If the credibility of the FBI is to be maintained in
the eyes of the public, the lawbreaker, fugitive, deserter, and if we are
to continue a flexible, mobile, ready-for-anything force of Special
Agents, we must continue to limit the position to males.
FBI Memorandum to the Attorney General
May 19, 1971
Even today people tell me I don't look like an FBI agent. Well, it's
true, I didn't don the traditional raincoat, wing tips, and snap-brim
hat; but I definitely looked better than J. Edgar did in frilly
things. When Hoover died in 1972, he was aware that women would
soon be hired as agents. Some people believe that just having to face that
fact finished him off.
To become one of the first women to serve as a special agent was not
my lifelong aspiration, and I had no burning desire to break new ground
for the feminist cause. Like many baby boomers, I was inspired by John
F. Kennedy and hoped to make a differencein the world. Kennedy's
challenge-"Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you
can do for your country"-affected me deeply and, when I joined the
Bureau in October 1977, I wanted to serve my country. The United
States of my childhood was proud and patriotic. Throughout my school
years, I stood with my classmates every morning, hands over our hearts,
saying the Pledge of Allegiance; and during the Cuban missile crisis, I
knelt in the halls of my Dallas, Texas, grade school with my hands
clasped over my neck, waiting for the bombs to fall. I learned at an early
age that my way of life was a prize to be protected by me and every
I remember when the Berlin Wall was built, and I saw newsreels of
men, women, and children who had lost their lives trying to escape from
East Germany to freedom. Both my parents proudly served as Naval
Medical Corps officers during World War II and instilled in me the
belief that our country, our government, would never do anything
wrong. And so in 1976, though only a few women had been admitted
into the exclusive club of agents, I applied to the FBI. With a personal
sense of pride and duty, plus some girlish dreams of adventure, I
believed I could make a difference.
The job had everything I wanted in a career: a big enough salary to
support my children, a chance to use my education in Slavic languages,
and an opportunity to serve my country. All this, with excitement as a
bonus. It seemed too good to be true.
In the years that followed, I earned eight commendations from FBI
directors and one letter of appreciation from the director of the U.S.
Secret Service. I worked undercover against criminals, spies, and terrorists.
Eventually, I became a supervisor at FBI headquarters, the seventh
woman to attain that rank. I supervised big-name cases like the Achille
Lauro hijacking and later supervised a terrorism squad and interagency
task force in Denver. I had a no-bluff reputation and the support of
some outstanding men and women, who would have followed me into
hell. I even protected the president a couple of times at the invitation of
the Secret Service. But up to my last minute on the job, in the eyes of
many in the Bureau, I wasn't a special agent; I was a female agent, something
much less than what the title "special agent" suggested. And let me
just say now, all agents start out as gun-carrying field agents. There are
no "administrative" agent positions where they stash the women, and we
all carry the same credentials.
During most of my Bureau career, I was a single parent, raising my
son and daughter alone. Looking back, it's easy to question what kind of
a life I gave them. In San Francisco, a psychopathic ex-con stalked us
and said my kids would be kidnapped. In Denver, white supremacists
vandalized our home the night before a murder trial of Aryan Nation
members. And me, well, I was always being called away for one emergency
or another. No one would describe my family's life as charmed.
When I applied to the Bureau in 1976, I was twenty-six, divorced
from a Foreign Service officer, and the unemployed mother of two.
Originally, I had hoped to find a job in my hometown of Dallas, but my
special talents-fluency in Serbo-Croatian, Russian, and Czech, which
I'd picked up in college and from study abroad-were not in big
demand. In fact, they were not in demand at all. For about a month, I
naively thought my college degree would count for something, but in
Dallas in 1976, if it wasn't banking or insurance, it wasn't hiring.
"Can you type?" was the 1970s personnel department mantra when
interviewing women. (Even Sandra Day O'Connor, magna cum laude
and a member of the editorial board of the Stanford Law Review, started
in the typing pool.) Although I had mastered the hunt-and-peck technique,
I could not type well enough to pass a typing test. In desperation,
I began waiting tables in a steak house near the Apparel Mart at
which President Kennedy had been scheduled to speak on the day he
Those first few months on my own were a massive plunge in prestige
and in the way I was accustomed to being regarded. I was no longer
Madame Foreign Service wife, who entertained diplomatic guests at
black-tie dinners in Belgrade. Instead, I was a waitress who was summoned
with salutations such as "Hey, chicky!" and treated to such
nightly complaints as, "This steak ain't cooked right, sweetie," and
"Where's my iced tea?"-all for $1.10 per hour, plus tips. Nonetheless,
it was an honest income, and I'd always said that if I needed money to
feed my children, I'd do whatever it took. Having no better job
prospects at the time, I did what I had to do.
My journey to adulthood had begun in 1968 when I enrolled in the
University of Texas at Austin and declared a biology major. Unfortunately,
I couldn't master the mystical math that biological research
required. At the same time, I was taking classes in Russian and Czech,
which I enjoyed, so I switched my major to Slavic languages.
My interest in Slavic countries happened almost by accident. As a
teenager, I traveled with friends to a rural area outside of Houston
where everyone spoke Czech. I slept in my girlfriend's grandmother's
attic on an overstuffed feather bed. The house had no air conditioning,
but I didn't feel the searing southeast Texas heat. During the day, my
friend and I picked cantaloupes and did farm chores. Some of the boys
took us to swim in a nearby lake where rattlesnakes sunned themselves
by the water, and the boys made a game of killing them by flipping
rocks at their heads. This was one of the few dares in my life I didn't
take. I wasn't interested getting that close to any viper. If you didn't kill
them with the first whack, they coiled to defend themselves. I'd rather
face a gun anytime.
The elderly Czechs who lived in the sleepy town maintained the traditions
and language of their homeland. Their speech was pleasant to
my ear, and for some reason, the words were easy to learn. I couldn't
understand everything, but the conversations were animated with gesticulations,
so I could guess the context, and everyone pitched in to
The beauty and mystery I saw in their crumbling, sepia photographs
deeply imprinted on my imagination, and these pleasant memories
flooded my mind the day I noticed an announcement on the University
of Texas's language department's bulletin board about a study abroad
program in Zagreb, Croatia, which was then part of Yugoslavia. I
jumped at the chance to travel and study, despite my family's concern
that I would disappear behind the Iron Curtain, never to breathe the air
of freedom again.
The idea of studying in a far-off place seemed romantic and challenging,
so I applied for the federally funded scholarship and was
accepted. The first phase of my big adventure was eleven weeks of
summer school at Portland State University in Oregon, where I studied
Serbo-Croatian and gained enough competence to scrape by in a
That summer in Portland was a turning point for me. It was there I
met my future husband, Dick, a fellow scholarship student. He was
handsome, smart, and five years my senior. He had served in the Navy
during Vietnam and seemed a sophisticated man of the world to my
fresh-from-Texas teenaged self. Even though he had a quick and somewhat
frightening temper, I was a naive nineteen-year-old, blinded by his
looks and intelligence. I felt confident that the love of a good woman
(that would be me) could calm him down. My jokes made him laugh,
and I told myself I could control his temper with my adoring and comical
The Yugoslavia I encountered was a giant step back in time, starting
at the airport where we deplaned via wooden ladders, and continuing as
we drove to the city through the suburb that was to become Anatevka,
Tevye's village in Fiddler on the Roof, after the movie crew cleaned it up.
The sounds of locomotives filled the air for blocks around the train
station: the mechanized screech of steel brakes stopping tons of power
and the hiss of steam blowing clouds in the moist winter air. Trains were
the circulatory system of Europe in the '70s, like the highways and airports
of America, but more beautiful and symbolic of history-not new
and shiny, but enduring. Twenty-five years after the end of the war,
swastikas were visible beneath layers of paint on the sides of some of the
older wooden boxcars, which the Yugoslavs couldn't afford to replace.
Public bathrooms consisted of two metal footprints in the floor with
a hole in the middle, and people purchased toilet paper by the sheet.
Chickens and other livestock rode on the trams along with their
owners, and there was an ordinance against opening tram windows. I
don't know whether this rule was law or custom, but I tested it once
and was immediately chastised by a tramful of passengers. They
believed drafts caused colds, which resulted in death. With the benefit
of hindsight, I understand that their medical care system was vastly different
from ours, and their citizens commonly died of what Americans
would term minor illnesses. This, however, never occurred to me.
Having just reached the ripe old age of twenty when I arrived in
Zagreb, death was not real to me.
Nestled at the foothills of the Alps, the town of Zagreb had not been
damaged by World War II, so it retained its romantic, Old World charm
as opposed to other cities throughout Yugoslavia that had been razed
during the war, then rebuilt in Stalinist gray-concrete dullness.
In 1970, about half of the women in Zagreb still wore native garb:
black skirts, shawls, and scarves with white blouses. In addition, a
blood-red embroidered scarf and an apron were commonly worn in the
marketplace. Some men wore woven moccasins called opanci, which had
a curled toe after the Turkish custom, though these were more common
in Serbia and Bosnia.
I lived in a three-story house with Josip and Zagorka Kolar, respectively
a Hungarian and a Serb, who treated me as if I were their own
child. Josip's parents lived downstairs and Zagorka's mother lived
upstairs. The house was built near the top of a hill and the architecture
was the yellow rococo style that Peter the Great loved. My shutter-encased
window looked out onto a scene from a 1940s spy movie. At
night, the stone paths were lit with flickering lights that put off a glow
not much brighter than gas lamps. I could easily imagine Ingrid
Bergman running down the hill, through the mist of the park and into
the arms of Humphrey Bogart.
The neighborhood had not changed much since the Austro-Hungarian
Empire. In autumn, the trees turned brilliant hues of gold and
red, and fallen leaves blanketed the sidewalks. Through gaps between
the houses, I could see the spires of an ancient church with its Austrian
onion dome, much smaller than the Russian cupolas I'd studied in
school. There was a pleasant stillness about the street that stirred
thought as I climbed that hill every day after class, writing stories in my
head. The cool air was scented with burning wood and coal oil, and at
times, the sky was gray with the residue that settled on the snow and in
the lungs. There was also the scent of wonderful cuisine-grilling meats,
browning onions, baking seeds, and popping corn.
The Kolars' house had many modern conveniences, especially considering
that most of the other students boarded in houses where they
had to chop wood to heat water for baths, or had no bath at all, which
meant they had to use the public baths. The Kolars had a German device
that heated water as it came through the shower, which meant that the
hot water never ran out. They also had a full kitchen, wood and oil heat
for the rest of the house, and even a washing machine. The washer didn't
work, so they used it as a hamper to store dirty clothes-which was not
unusual in communist countries.
Their attic was filled with treasures. Dried sausages hung from the
ceiling, along with strange flags and bouquets of dried flowers. There
was a wire dress form, and a multitude of books and storage chests.
Zagorka's mother, Baba Mara, took me to the attic and showed me the
contents of a chest. In it was her wedding skirt. She had woven the cloth,
then stitched it by hand. The trunk also contained her husband's sword.
He had been a cavalry officer, killed in one of the many wars between
the Serbs and Turks, Germans, Croats, and others.
The harshness of life had aged Baba Mara beyond her years. A
woman in her sixties, her back was bent and dark circles ringed her eyes.
Her silver hair was always covered with a black scarf. She was soft-spoken
and full of stories of her youth. She told me that, when she was
growing up, it was not necessary for women to learn mathematics;
instead, they learned to weave and to tat lace. She didn't like the shoddy
materials that were sold in the stores and boasted that the fabrics she
wove herself would last a lifetime. It was a point of pride that she did
not need to buy new clothes.
She had a deep fear of Gypsies, communists, and werewolves,
speaking of them only in whispers. There was not much I could do
about the werewolves or the communists, but I did carry an empty wine
bottle in my book bag to smack any Gypsy who might try to carry me
off, though none ever did.
The Kolars had a television set, and we gathered as a family to watch
various television shows. Peyton Place was popular at the time, as was A
Doctor in the House, a wonderful British comedy about medical students
Soviet television was dreary, and Romanian television was flat-out horrible.
Polish television was artfully produced and interesting, if a little
heavy. As the Polish language sounds something like a cross between
Croatian and Russian, I usually caught the gist of what was going on.
Excerpted from NO BACKUP
by Rosemary Dew and Pat Pape
Copyright © 2004 by Rosemary Dew and Pat Pape.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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