CREATIVE EXPRESSION: SINGER
Yael has led an intriguing and adventurous life. CIA Analyst. On-the-ground U.S. State Department foreign service officer in East Africa. National Security Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. She even worked on Corporate Social Responsibility for Exxon Mobil. Recently, Yael made news by penning an Op-Ed in the New York Times that was critical of the U.S. president’s speech before the CIA. It was her first time publicly revealing her role with the CIA and it generated a lot of interest from various media outlets. It was a courageous move.
In this first part of our interview with Yael, we discuss what being a superstar means to her, her experience at the CIA and the role of personality in success.
We meet at a trendy café in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Smooch. When Yael arrives, she proceeds to immediately take charge. We change tables two times after she has scouted for optimal positioning. She then turns her attention to the menu. She is amused by the menu’s quirkiness and orders “The Stupid Omelette for the Super Intelligent.” “Super intelligent, that’s me.” She is not lacking in confidence.
Superstar Agenda: Are you a superstar?
YAEL: Am I a superstar? [laughter] Shit. I mean. I guess it’s time for me to own it and say yes. I guess I have no choice but to own that. I spend every New Year’s at this place called Renaissance Weekend, not to be confused with Renaissance Fair. We don’t joust and eat turkey legs. It’s sort of this group of high achieving individuals who like to spend their holiday weekends together nerding out. There’s like 1,000 of us. Anyways, I was at a dinner and there were about 12 of us and it was not this New Year’s, but the New Year’s before and we each made commitments round the table that night and we each had to tell each other what their commitment should be and the whole table told me my commitment needs to be that I should actually own my badassness. That’s supposed to be my commitment. To own my badassness. So, I guess I’m a fucking superstar. There, I just owned it.
Superstar Agenda: Why?
YAEL: Why am I a superstar? Um, because everything, every place I’ve worked, everything I’ve done, at the end of the day it’s always guided by my convictions, and they’re not always the easiest choices. I’m also not afraid. If I have the conviction in me, I mean, shit, I will sit in a room and stare down a 4-star general and tell him what I think. That’s not a problem for me. It’s when I’m being asked to do something that doesn’t 100% align with what I believe in, that’s different. So, I guess that makes me a superstar.
Yael recently wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times that received widespread coverage. The piece was a critique of a speech that President Trump gave in front of the CIA. It was the first time Yael had so publicly come out as a former CIA Analyst.
Superstar Agenda: It was a lovely piece. It’s really well written.
YAEL: I took excessive caution in that one. I mean that was actually something that I was so overwhelmingly angry about. The Op-Ed came out of me in a few hours. I knew it was Times worthy. I sent it to the New York Times and said do you want it? They edited a few words and that was it. And it ran. But that’s also the thing, it’s about, that was an authentic place.
Superstar Agenda: It felt real.
YAEL: But I was also a bit strategic in the sense of I realize that there are a lot of people screaming about all sorts of things right now. Rightfully so. But I know that I have a pretty unique platform having been in places that most people don’t think of majorly, socially progressive people like me coming from. Yeah, I’m a liberal. I’m a progressive. And yeah, I was in the CIA. But I was very very cautious not to say anything that would immediately make anybody on the other side of anything stop listening. Because, it’s, there’s so much going on right now and we need to be able to get people from all sides listening to each others’ points . So, anyway, that’s how that whole thing came to be.
Superstar Agenda: So, the CIA. Let’s talk about that experience. What was the day-to-day like when you started out? What were you doing?
YAEL: I mean, back then, and this is still pre-September 11th, everything obviously changes after September 11th, you’re depending on what countries and what issues you’re working on. I’m working on these countries that no one cares about so it’s harder to find sources and resources but it’s, you’re reading all sorts of sources from clandestine to open sources. You’re getting as much information as you can and making, I mean at the end of the day your number one job requirement is to be able to first and foremost warn. So if there’s something that a policy maker needs to be warned about, and then secondly, just providing important intelligence that they can use to make decisions. I mean I was a leadership analyst, so I was analyzing leaders, so that when they would meet with these leaders I would, the reports or the things that I was writing would help inform…
Superstar Agenda: Did you ever have to source your intelligence?
YAEL: No, that’s very separated at the agency. So, the sources are cultivated by operators and then the analysis is done by the analysts. I mean it’s not, they’ve restructured many times over the years, but traditionally it was very separated back then.
Superstar Agenda: With the analysis you need to really understand the history, the political system, motivations, economics…
YAEL: All of that, plus mixing in classified information. I mean you have whole range of intelligence that you’re using and putting it all together and making sense of it all, which means also having that skill to not jump to conclusions about things until you weigh everything, which with what’s happening in our world right now, the onslaught of various kinds of news sources, everyone immediately thinks they know everything and actually doing any sort of analysis is sort of lost. But yeah. So yeah, that’s where it begins and then you go off and you do training and I was in this 6-month training program and I was out in Omaha, Nebraska with 25 other CIA analysts on September 11th.
Superstar Agenda: Really?
YAEL: We got stranded, we were visiting Strategic Command, which is actually where the President landed that day if you recall, and we sort of got stranded out in Omaha and all of our lives obviously changed that day and all priorities changed that day and we were just kinda roaming around Omaha grounded, not knowing what that meant. Yeah, it was weird. And then I went from this girl who just wanted to work on Africa and interesting policy questions and went down a serious national security path from there and became one of our big counter terrorism experts for East Africa. Yeah I just fast forwarded through all those years, and then THAT happened!
Superstar Agenda: Can you describe a defining moment that set you on the trajectory to becoming a superstar within the CIA?
YAEL: I don’t know if I would say that I became a superstar within the CIA. I left that agency. One of the weird things about my career trajectory is that I worked in like 5 different US government agencies, which most people have not. Most people stay in one agency the whole time.
Superstar Agenda: How long were you at the CIA?
YAEL: 4 years. And went over to the State Department and became a foreign service officer and that’s when I went to Nairobi.
Superstar Agenda: You say that you didn’t see that you were a superstar at the CIA, why?
YAEL: I don’t think, it’s a weird thing. I personality-wise. I was never the right personality to be an analyst. Analysts traditionally are more introverted, traditionally, I mean some of the smartest most awesome people I ever worked with, but you’re not necessarily ever supposed to become known by name. You’re not supposed to stand out necessarily, right, and as much as I might not be this self-promoting person, not standing out is not really ingrained in me. I am, although as I’m older, I’m probably more introverted now, but when I was younger I mean I was extremely extroverted and just culturally I wasn’t the right fit, I got on better with the other side of the house. The operators, and what not. My work was good. Nobody could ever tell me my work wasn’t good. My personality clashed so strongly with my managers that it was a problem and only with my female managers, and that gets into the whole women in that world thing. So, it was personality issues, it was, I was perhaps a little bit too strong in my opinions to be an analyst and I hold on to my convictions. It is who I am. I can say throughout my entire career I never once did anything that ever made me feel like it was going against my morals or my values. But, personality-wise it was not the best fit. And I mean there are some tough times there. I served on the Afghanistan task force and that’s like 12 hours overnight working till 4 in the morning coordinating the intelligence for the war in Afghanistan. It’s stuff that takes a toll on your body. It takes a toll on everything, but no I’m just, I’m more of a being out there, I’m more of a doer, I’m a little bit less of a sit and, just personality-wise it just probably wasn’t the best.
Superstar Agenda: Have you taken the Myers Briggs personality test? Let me guess…
YAEL: I’m different now than I was in the beginning of my career.
Superstar Agenda: Hmmm let me guess, I think you’re an ESTP.
YAEL: Oh, my god!!! That’s exactly what I was! How did you guess that?! That’s amazing!!
Superstar Agenda: I connected the dots, because you’re an extrovert obviously. Based on the way you’re ordering food you’re very data driven so that’s an S. You have very strong T in the way that you think about things, and you don’t plan stuff.
YAEL: No, but that’s like, I mean, I expected you to get the E but I didn’t expect you to get everything else. So, that’s interesting if you want to go Myers Briggs, I’m an ESTP, and most analysts are an INTJ. And they don’t bring in, they don’t have professional managers, the managers are just analysts that just rise up the chain. So, an ESTP is being managed by INTJs.
Superstar Agenda: And that doesn’t work.
YAEL: It’s so funny. And it’s a big deal at the agency the Myers Briggs. They test you for it and then I think in a weird way it sort of clouds how people view you. It’s so funny that you just brought that up because I hate the Myers Briggs.
Superstar Agenda: The unfortunate thing about the Myers Briggs is that it’s supposed to be a test that is taken when you’re comfortable, when you’re in your comfort zone. If you’re being tested for the Myers Briggs at work then you answer the questions putting on your work hat so actually depending on how adaptable you are, you might actually cheat on your Myers Briggs. You might actually give answers that do not reflect your actual personality. So, actually, when I was at McKinsey, I filled it out and I put on my McKinsey hat and I was an ESTJ which is not true, I’m actually an ENFP. I was a consultant at McKinsey and went to law school became an investment banker and it’s just over time I realized, you know, that there’s a conflict here, there’s a clash. And then I went deep on the Myers Briggs and now I can do Myers Briggs on people.
YAEL: No but that was ridiculous. I retested last year and I don’t remember what I got but it did change a bit. But that, right there, that absolutely answers why I didn’t do so well. I mean I did well, but why there was that clash.
Superstar Agenda: That’s a very interesting type actually.
YAEL: Yeah we’re weird. We’re like highly functional procrastinators.
Superstar Agenda: Yeah yeah that’s exactly right!
YAEL: Yeah, because when I decide to do something, it happens. Like when I decided to write that New York Times piece it came out of me in one hour, but if you told me to write a piece now on something that I wasn’t as motivated about I would procrastinate every single day until. Highly functional procrastinators. So yeah. Wow, way to just wrap up the first 4 years of my life.
Yeah, and then I was really really blessed to get Nairobi. I’m sure anywhere I went the experience would have been great. But I arrived in Nairobi, I was I think 29 years old. A 29 year old single female Jew with an Israeli name, and the U.S. ambassador for whatever reason, if it was something about my personality, if it was because he knew that I had previously been in the agency, whatever it was, I thought I was going to work on foreign policy and Kenyan presidential elections and all the things that diplomats work on and instead he told me that I was going to be in charge of the counter terrorism portfolio. I was also going to be the political military officer in charge of helping to fix the relationship between State Department and Department of Defense in Kenya.
And so he gave me 3 basic portfolios. It was all sort of under the security portfolio and the third one it was sort of outreach for marginalized communities and if we can be a little bit less politically correct, it was outreach in Muslim communities. It meant that I was in charge of coasts and I’m in charge of North Eastern. I remember. I said to my boss right away, to the head of the political section, “Are you sure?” I understand you’re giving me the sexiest job here, but I’m also a young single female Jew with the Hebrew name, and I won’t be offended if you give it to that white guy over there, because it’s to me about getting the job done right, not about being politically correct. And of course I think that’s what made him want to give it to me even more because I wasn’t, I really, I didn’t want to take the role unless they were sure I was the right one for it and everything changed in those 2 years. The ambassador gave me a very very wide berth to do what he thought I should be doing and that, I think the fact, I’m not trying to sound overly altruistic, but me telling him that means that clearly I was putting mission ahead of self in that moment, right? Because this is serious, this is, we’re talking about everything going along the Somali boarder, we’re talking about all the things happening and are you sure you want me to be the one? And he did!
That’s where I was first given the opportunity to really shine. I had an ambassador who saw something in me, he believed in me, and obviously often it just takes that boss who’s gonna see that too.
Superstar Agenda: It sounds like you reflected aspects of what their organization was aspiring to be and he saw that and that’s why he invested in you.
YAEL: Maybe, or maybe he thought this chick was in the CIA so maybe we should give her all the… I really don’t know if it was about me or if it was just about where I came from but it was interesting. I mean during those two years, I’ll just say it without sounding shy, that’s where I became a serious badass. I can show you pictures where, I mean, first of all we had this you know entire US military presence and it’s not a warzone so they’re not, Department Of Defense is not in charge, State Department is in charge. And so having to like cultivate that relationship, and being the young 29-year-old single female, kind of telling a lot of U.S. military men what they can and cannot do, is an interesting position to be in. I had really short hair at the time. I was like fit, short hair, I looked very… And it was a serious mission, I mean you know what happened in Kenya. We had ongoing investigations from the 98 bombings, the precursor to Al-Shabaab coming up, we had all this stuff going on, serious.
Superstar Agenda: So, you grew into yourself.
YAEL: Oh, yes I did, and quick. But because it was a role that was way more matched to my personality. I got to be more independent, I got to not have to pretend to not have an opinion. I am opinionated, I am not shy, I curse like a sailor.
Superstar Agenda (Daryl): Did you ever get pushback because you’re a woman?
YAEL: No, it was interesting. I did from the military, some of them at first, but that’s just always gonna be part of that culture. I believe though that I did earn my respect. I had my rules. These men had to realize that I was still a woman, I didn’t have to pretend not to be. I would still go out and party with them, I learned to drink them under the table. I would. Some of them are geographic bachelors which is horrible, but it’s true, their wives are all back home. I’m not sleeping with any of them, but yeah when you’re out there and you’re doing your shit you’re gonna flirt, you’re gonna party and the second you as a woman cross that line you will never be respected again in that world again.
Because I’m also living there. I’m also a single woman in Kenya for 2 years on top of all that. So, it was weird. It was a weird role but I grew into it quickly and it was probably, yes, it was definitely well suited to me. It was some ass kicking work, it was hard, it was fun. It was. –
Superstar Agenda: So you were there for a two-year contract. So, were you tired at the end of that experience?
Superstar Agenda: Did you want to change course and do something different? I mean you were doing something that you were so suited for. It suited your personality. You had a lot of respect, and you were having an impact.
YAEL: I don’t think ever during my career I ever actually did the kind of self-assessment that I should have. Like the questions, you’re asking right now. The reason I don’t know how to answer them is because I went for 13 years, like I didn’t actually sit down and think about that. That’s what I’ve been going through my process the last few years, at the time it was just go go go, because yeah it was exhausting and my highs were really high and my lows were low. You’re out there and you’re out there dealing with, I mean the most amazing people but they all have their own shit, you’re talking about people who are spending their weeks at places like Dabaab or in South Sudan and then flying into Nairobi to let off steam and there’s a reason why that expat community can be so crazy. Because you know they’re flying into Mogadishu Monday through Thursday then coming back to Nairobi to like get crazy. So yeah, it’s emotionally tiring and fun and thrilling and exciting. Coming back to Washington…
Superstar Agenda: Blue shirts and khakis…
YAEL: And that’s interesting. Last week I was in a speed boat going along the canals of Lamu and now I’m in an office in Washington, D.C. That adjustment is rough. It took a few years until I got back into a role that was that exciting.
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