Coastal Carolina professor goes from CIA to CCU to Sundance for role in bin Laden search documentary

vgrooms@thesunnews.comFebruary 2, 2013 

— As Cindy Storer outlined the pros and cons of gun control on the blackboard last week, she prompted her students in her politics class to examine each side of the issue and learn the difference between true and false arguments.

“Be skeptical, and ask a lot of questions,” said Storer, a lecturer in the Intelligence and National Security Studies degree program at Coastal Carolina University. “You can peel away the issues to find a lot of emotion and very little fact.”

Teaching sound critical thinking skills is a priority for Storer, who is training the next generation of intelligence officers, some of whom may want to follow in her footsteps. A former analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency, she is an expert on terrorism and worked with the female CIA team that unraveled the details of al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, in the 1990s.

Senior Shaun Lindquist says he’s lucky to be taught by Storer – “the things we read about, she’s actually lived it” – and calls her “amazing,” but since appearing in an HBO documentary and at last month’s Sundance Film Festival, some have been calling her “superstar.”

Storer is interviewed in “Manhunt,” which is based on Peter Bergen’s book about the 20-year hunt for bin Laden. The film puts a spotlight on “the Sisterhood” and finally tells the women’s story, which Storer said Bergen has wanted to tell for years. She said he was able to work with director Greg Barker, who optioned Bergen’s book after bin Laden was killed, and she’s heard the documentary could air in May, although no official date has been set.

Storer said she decided individually to participate in the film and was unaware of others who had come forward until she was reunited at Sundance with two former CIA co-workers and saw the premiere. The three of them were shuffled through interviews and photo shoots as a team, but she said they were put in their place by Nicole Kidman’s people, who pushed the real-life heroes out of the way so the actress – her only celebrity siting – could pass. Still, she said people were recognizing her on the street, which was both surreal and a little uncomfortable, “but they were all thanking me for my service, which was awesome.”

The “Manhunt” documentary comes on the heels of Oscar-nominated “Zero Dark Thirty,” which Storer has seen but said she needs to see again to render an opinion because she’s so close to the subject. One thing she did not like was the character played by Jennifer Ehle, which was based on real-life Jennifer Matthews, who was killed in a suicide bombing. Storer knew Matthews and said she was unlike her consistent portrayal as being somewhat careless or foolish.

“I think something that makes this documentary different is the director,” Storer said. “Greg [Barker] really tried to understand how things work, and it’s not spun left or right. It has people talking about their real experiences from their perspectives and about how decisions actually get made, not how people fantasize about how they get made.”

Storer said Barker hopes the film informs the national debate about issues, but she also hopes it takes the pressure off those behind the scenes, who are usually blamed when something goes wrong but are unable to set the record straight.

“Whether you agree or disagree, they shouldn’t be scapegoats,” she said. “We don’t do that to soldiers, and we shouldn’t do that to analysts or our operations guys in the field because they’re soldiers, too.”

Path to the CIA

Storer grew up in Hampton, Va., in a family where all the men had been in the military. She considered going into archaeology but ultimately couldn’t resist the call of government service and the promise of international travel. Unable to get into West Point, she earned a degree in government at the College of William and Mary, where her honors thesis about U.S. involvement in Vietnam introduced her to the work of the CIA, and she applied while still in college.

“I read analyses by lots of agencies and really thought the CIA’s way of going about things was the best,” said Storer, who also holds a master’s degree in international relations from The Catholic University of America. “I still believe that, actually, and I decided that’s where I wanted to work.”

Storer said her first job as an analyst involved looking at satellite imagery of “Soviet stuff,” but in 1992, she began studying Afghanistan and the veterans of the Afghan War who were mounting terrorist attacks around the world. She said that before the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a small number of her predecessors had written about the possible threat to America, but decision makers didn’t get the message.

“It’s extraordinarily difficult to warn people when what you’re saying is the opposite of their mindset,” Storer said. “It’s the same in business. … You’re talking about reorganizing the way the agency does business.”

Storer moved in 1995 to the agency’s then-small counterterrorism unit, where she worked with the Sisterhood to study bin Laden and what appeared to be a new terrorist group at work. Shut out of the FBI investigation into the ’93 bombing, she said there were materials - including actual al Qaeda documents – they never knew existed until years later at the open hearings of the 9-11 commission.

“There was a woman in the FBI’s New York field office who was doing the exact same thing I was doing, putting together the whole picture, and we were never allowed to meet,” she said. “That’s extremely frustrating. Can you imagine if we had compared notes?”

Storer said she was not involved in the hunt for bin Laden after 2001 but continued her strategic analysis. She was acknowledged for developing the “Ziggurat of Zealotry” model for understanding terrorism -- which she said she’s always trying to improve – before leaving the agency in 2007. A ziggurat, named after an ancient pyramid, is a chart that describes how people ascend from normalcy to terrorism.

“It got to the point where I felt like I no longer could do any good being inside the government,” said Storer, who now wants to educate people about the system, as she does in the documentary, as well as to publish, which she is free to do as long as sensitive information stays under wraps.

Real-world insight to the classroom

With the release of “Manhunt,” the attention placed on Storer also has highlighted CCU’s Intelligence and National Security Studies degree program, which wasn’t in place when she joined CCU in 2008 to be near her parents, who had retired in the area.

“This kind of program is still relatively new at the university level worldwide, but we’re seeing good results already,” said Storer, who was developing courses while the major was being established by Ken Rogers, chair of the Department of Politics and Geography, including one on al Qaeda.

Program Director Jonathan Smith, who came on board in 2011, said the program already has more than 50 declared majors, and he hopes to add a third faculty member to the team next year. He said the craft of intelligence is expanding into business and law enforcement, and national security has become more prominent, with two of the top three hiring agencies being the Department of Defense and Homeland Security.

“It’s growing like a weed at the moment,” Smith said, “and [Cindy’s] expertise is a critical factor for our success.”

In addition to critical thinking, Storer and Smith stress communication skills – how to write well for intelligence purposes and be well-spoken for briefings – and cross-cultural competence, learning a language and developing a depth of knowledge for an area of the world. Storer advises students to stand out so they can compete for jobs at the highest levels and said some already have scored key internships at agencies such as Interpol.

Senior Nicholas Marti, a Marine who transferred to the program from the College of Charleston, said by working with Storer, he has learned how to be confident in executing proper procedure and presenting information. He said he is applying to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and hopes to be appointed to the counterterrorism division, which could pave the way to a job with homeland security.

“What I love is that she has discussion-based classes, and it’s hands-on. She will show you, then she wants you to produce the work,” which is a simulation of techniques used in real life, Marti said. “You’re getting the opportunity to work with someone who knows what it takes to get to that level, to know your enemy, to know what information is good – you’re not going to get any closer than that.”

Lindquist will graduate with a different degree in May, but he made sure to take some of Storer’s classes and said he actually Googled her when he was told about her past. He said she’s always there for her students, and he enjoys learning her techniques and getting her real-world perspective, something he’s glad people will see when “Manhunt” airs.

“I thought it was about time that people could hear about the things she’s done,” he said. “It didn’t surprise me. It’s not about all the glitz and glamour but what really happened.”

Storer stays busy with a full class load and will probably be dogged by fame, at least until “Manhunt” airs. She said the interest in archaeology never left her, and she may take a class if she ever finds time, but despite some frustrations, if she had it to do over, she would still opt for her career with the CIA.

“I’d still do it, but I’d have done things a little differently in the beginning,” she said. “As you grow older, you learn a little more about how politics works and how the game is played. I didn’t really know I was playing a game - I didn’t know what the game was – but you can only do what you can do at that point in your life.”

Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.

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