- Associated Press - Monday, August 9, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States has had three female secretaries of state, but until now has not had a woman lead one of its 16 major intelligence agencies.

Letitia A. Long was elevated Monday to director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in a ceremony at the agency’s half-built, high-tech campus at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.

The “Jetsons”-style rounded wedge of buildings is rising from a vast construction site. The NGA’s staff, now spread across the Washington area, is slated to relocate there by fall 2011.

Ms. Long’s 32-year career has led to a series of senior management positions: deputy director of naval intelligence, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and, most recently, second in command at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Ms. Long represents the vanguard of women in the intelligence community.

Women represent 38 percent of total intelligence work force, according to Wendy Morigi, spokeswoman for the director of national intelligence. In the six most prominent agencies, 27 percent of senior intelligence positions are held by women.

Ms. Long has taken over one of the “top computer geek shops” in the national security world. The NGA synthesizes satellite imagery, using everything from the number of electric lines a city has to the density of the soil, to create three-dimensional, interactive maps of every spot on the planet. They’re used by everyone from invading troops gauging whether a country’s roads or deserts can handle tank tracks, to oil spill cleanup crews trying to decide where to deploy resources.

Ms. Long has the science and technology credentials to do it, with a degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech and a master’s in mechanical engineering from the Catholic University of America.

Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, California Democrat, said Ms. Long’s “experience and position make her an important role model for all the women in the intelligence community.” Ms. Eshoo is a member of the House intelligence committee and a longtime proponent of women in top intelligence roles.

Some of Ms. Long’s new female staffers at the NGA say her example surely will change how the largely male-dominated work force sees them. However, women in their 30s and 40s at these agencies say the climb they face is small compared to Ms. Long’s fight, against an older generation that hadn’t yet witnessed women in combat or a woman come so close to capturing the nomination for U.S. president.

Yet some of those women out in the national security trenches say the fight’s far from over.

Intelligence executive Carrie Bachner, a former Air Force officer, worked as the legislative adviser to Charles Allen when he was the Department of Homeland Security’s top intelligence official.

That meant she advised him daily on how to deal with the 86 congressional committees responsible for DHS oversight.

Still, Ms. Bachner said, when she would walk into a room of intelligence officials or congressional staff with Mr. Allen, “they’d automatically ignore me, assuming I was the executive assistant or a note taker until they’d realize, ‘Oh, wow, she’s the person we’re supposed to talk to.’”

Ms. Bachner is also Indonesian, which she believes is another reason she is often overlooked.

“I still get it, even though I’m the president of my company,” she says. Her firm, Mission Concepts Inc., specializes in information sharing and serves the Pentagon and most of the intelligence agencies. “They are taken aback when I introduce myself. They’re looking for the real president, and well, that’s me.”

And now when “they” look for the director of the NGA, that will be Letitia Long.