It was a Capitol Hill ritual in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When House and Senate conferees gathered to haggle over billions of dollars of weapons in annual defense bills, one aide from each side would stride to center stage and take charge. A bear of a man--6-foot, 4-inch, 235-pound John J. Hamre--would rise from behind the senators seated at the conference table. From the House staff seats would come his counterpart, a foot shorter and half his weight: data-devouring, Diet Coke-swilling, workaholic Nora R. Slatkin.
The physical mismatch was striking, but it didn't affect the legislative jousting. Armed with facts, figures, and moxie, Slatkin never wavered--and she won her share of bouts. Recalls an ex-Hill aide: "She was going to get clobbered if she didn't have a steel backbone."
These days, Slatkin needs those metal vertebrae more than ever. Last May, Central Intelligence Agency Director John M. Deutch named her to one of the toughest management jobs in America: executive director of the CIA. With Deutch focusing on relations with the President and Congress, Slatkin, 40, is not only the highest-ranking woman in CIA history but also the most powerful executive director in memory. Her job: running the day-to-day operations of a $3 billion agency that employs 17,000 people. Her mission: reinventing a bureaucracy stubbornly resistant to the accountability Congress is demanding. At the CIA, sighs former Director Robert M. Gates, "they understand how foreign policy and politics are carried out in every country in the world except one. Unfortunately, that's the one they operate in."
NOTORIOUS. Since May, Slatkin has been revamping the personnel system, disciplining wayward spooks, and trying to rebuild morale in the wake of the notorious Aldrich H. Ames case. But the CIA's furtive culture and dispersed workforce make it "an immensely difficult place to run," says an intelligence expert. "There's not any management school in the world that can prepare you."
To her critics, Slatkin's lack of cloak-and-dagger experience makes her singularly unprepared. "She wouldn't know an agent if he came up and kissed her," sniffs a former CIA officer. Slatkin's response is typically assured. "I have never met an agent in a backstreet of Lisbon," she concedes. "It doesn't mean I can't do this job." Operations chief David Cohen notes that Slatkin's job is not to run covert operations but to ask probing questions about their rationale--and "she's great at that."
In any case, being a woman may be a bigger problem than not being a spy. The CIA "is a time warp" when it comes to sexism, says one former government official. Last year, the agency settled a class action alleging sex discrimination, and the year before, a suit by a female former station chief who claimed male subordinates had concocted charges of alcoholism and sexual misconduct that ruined her career. (The station chief, Janine Brookner, had recommended disciplining Ames years before.)
Deutch says Slatkin's appointment carries an important message: Women in intelligence "can go as high as their abilities take them." But ex-CIA hands, who claim their feelings are shared by dozens of current spymasters, dismiss Slatkin as "a demanding little blonde from Brooklyn." (She actually was born and raised on Long Island.)
EXPLOSIVE REPORT. Undeterred, Slatkin has plunged into her job. One of her first duties was to chair a panel reviewing an explosive Inspector General's report that charged two dozen operatives with failing to reveal the links between a Guatemalan colonel on the CIA payroll and the murders of an American innkeeper and a rebel married to an American. The review was exhaustive, in part because she used it to learn about reporting duties up the chain of command and how case officers abroad work. "She just kept pounding until she did understand it," says Deputy Director for Intelligence John C. Gannon. Slatkin, Gannon notes, likes to "have one more meeting than anyone wants."
Once the panel decided to sanction half of those implicated, Slatkin didn't shy from the toughest task. She personally called the operatives to tell them of the penalties, which included several forced retirements. The sanctions spooked some spooks, who felt 1995 disclosure standards were being applied to actions that occurred years earlier.
The daughter of an accountant and an office manager, Slatkin wanted to work for the government since her days as one of the first women at Lehigh University. There, Oles M. Smolansky, a self-described "left-of-the-center" Soviet foreign policy expert, convinced the Phi Beta Kappa student that majoring in foreign relations wouldn't lead to a life driving cabs. Says Slatkin: "He opened my eyes to a whole range of opportunities in Washington."
Later, at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, she focused on defense, though there were few women in the field. One of her three stepchildren, 27-year-old country & western singer Kelly Willis, thinks Slatkin breaks into male-dominated worlds "to show it can be done." Slatkin demurs, saying it's "part accident, part sign of the times."
Whatever the case, in Washington her record and her mentors aided her steady ascent. After winning kudos as an analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, she moved to the House Armed Services Committee, where she enhanced her reputation as a procurement specialist. When President Clinton tapped the panel's chairman, the late Les Aspin, to be Defense Secretary, Aspin took Slatkin along. She worked for Deutch, then the Pentagon's acquisitions chief, who in turn pushed her for head of procurement at the Navy, where she oversaw a $26 billion annual acquisition budget. There, her tough questions unsettled the brass and earned her the nickname "Tora Nora."
Noting Slatkin's limited managerial experience, one congressional source lumps her with a group of aides who "wound up in positions not due to the fact that they were superbly competent, but they happened to have a connection to Les Aspin." On the other hand, says the source: "She didn't screw up when opportunity knocked."
Indeed, Deutch was so impressed with her skills--she helped rescue such overbudget programs as the Seawolf submarine--that when he became CIA director, he named her to her current $122,688-a-year job. "She's a tremendously capable person," he says. "You give her a management problem, and it gets resolved."
Now Slatkin is putting in 60-hour weeks and working the mobile phone during early-morning and late-night commutes between her home in Annapolis, Md., and CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Says a senior Navy official: "She is an absolutely driven person."
So driven that it was perhaps inevitable she would meet her husband at work. Slatkin and Oklahoman Deral E. Willis, a laid-back retired paratrooper who works for Senator Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) on defense and foreign policy, first crossed paths when she was at the CBO and he was the Army's congressional liaison with the office. They married in 1982. These days, they like to spend weekends boating on Chesapeake Bay. But so efficiency-minded is Slatkin that they recently bought a 38-foot diesel trawler instead of a sailboat--to avoid wasting time drifting.
UNPRECEDENTED. Slatkin doesn't want the CIA to drift, either. She is requiring unprecedented five-year budget plans from each of the four directorates: Intelligence, Operations, Science & Technology, and Administration. And she asks hard questions about them, especially if a plan doesn't support the agency's focus on such areas as terrorism and narcotics. Says Gannon: "She is quite capable of stopping a briefing when she thinks inadequate preparation has been made."
Slatkin's biggest challenge may lie in revamping the agency's balkanized personnel system. The Intelligence unit alone has 10 geographic offices that jealously guard their control over personnel slots. Conducting intelligence in Bosnia involves coordinating six offices.
Slatkin says she also wants to "have fair practices" and make sure people are rewarded for performance. Even routine personnel decisions at the CIA have a Kafkaesque quality. Filings in the sex-discrimination suit alleged that "`secret files' that are never seen by the victims" often scotched promotions. Sources say officials cite national security to hide the reasons for some decisions.
Slatkin has set up a Human Resources Oversight Council to consolidate personnel management, and recruiting is now centralized. But she's pressing top officials to move faster. This spring, she will unveil an agencywide career-development program that will offer employees more training. "We want to recruit, attract, retain, and develop the very best people in America," she says.
That's a tall order. And the odds may be stacked against her. Budgets are tight, the CIA's reputation is bruised, and its galvanizing force, the Evil Empire, is gone. Slatkin is confident about her game plan. But even with Deutch squarely behind her, she'll need all the spine she showed on Capitol Hill.