- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

Behind the serious decisions of war and peace at the Pentagon is a woman few people know.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Mary Beth Long isn’t a name heard daily in the news. However, the young woman from Clearfield, Pa. — whose feminine style is a far departure from her silver-haired, traditional Pentagon male counterparts — is a highly respected principal adviser to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

She is the first woman to hold the civilian principal advisory position on the formulation and coordination of international security strategies abroad, including military strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Her areas of responsibility include the entire Middle East, Arabian Gulf, Africa and Europe

Getting there wasn’t easy, said Ms. Long, in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times.

“There were people who had issues about me taking this job because I’m very blunt, I slip into the vernacular, I’m not particularly ladylike,” she said, with a matter-of-fact tone. “There were people who raised that as an objection. But because I am more open about my personality and more willing to exert myself and relate to people, I can get more done. One of the reasons I got this job is because … I’m willing to push and be aggressive to get people on the same agenda.”

She was relaxed — her office more like a home. The Harley-Davidson books strewn across her coffee table gave a glimpse into the self-described “adrenaline junkie” whose past employment included paramilitary training as an operations officer with the CIA. She spent more than a decade with the clandestine agency before eventually taking a position as deputy assistant secretary of defense in counternarcotics.

Ms. Long’s office is a hub of activity, a reflection of her own intensity and energy. Just as one meeting ends, another begins.

She smiled, collected her thoughts and set a handful of memos down on her desk.

“They wanted to make sure I didn’t have anything laying around in the office,” she laughed, referencing the full security sweep that her office undergoes before anyone without high-level clearance can enter.

The middle child of three sisters, Ms. Long described herself as “Jan from ‘The Brady Bunch,’ ” not “Jennifer Garner from ‘Alias’ ” and laughed. She touts her small-town values as adding to her successful career and recalled her childhood, where doors were never locked, as a time of innocence before setting out into the world.

“She’s always marched to the beat of a different drummer,” said her mother, Betsy Long, whose simple life in Clearfield is much different from that of her daughter’s high-powered D.C. responsibilities.

“She really is a small-town girl that has given her life to serving her country,” her mother said. “Thank heaven for Mary Beth and people like her. … There were times when I was very worried — I wondered where she was and if she was safe.”

In the CIA, Ms. Long’s assignments kept her stationed mainly in various South American and Latin American countries. Her fluency in Spanish was useful in gathering intelligence and in recruiting the “highest-level human sources.”

She also served as deputy and acting chief for the Haiti Task Force and was co-chairman of a joint CIA-Drug Enforcement Administration counternarcotics targeting team.

It was a dangerous job that kept Ms. Long — a Pennsylvania State University graduate and the first in her family to get a college degree — far from her home country and those she loved, she said. For security reasons, she didn’t elaborate on her work at the CIA; only a small biography alludes to some of her experiences.

“Her CIA experience includes operations targeting narcotics, [weapons of mass destruction], and terrorism,” it states. “She received several CIA awards, including some for her work in covert action.”

Mr. Gates said Ms. Long’s policy advice has been imperative in the current war in Afghanistan and Iraq. At her recent swearing-in ceremony, he said: “Anyone who has worked at CIA or the Department of Defense knows that it takes a special kind of woman to not only survive in these environments, but to thrive in them.”

She is always breaking new ground, said Donna Tubbs, a retired biology teacher from Clearfield Area High School.

“I know she’s a role model for many young women,” Ms. Tubbs said, of her former student. “Women are making new strides in the world, but it takes people like Mary Beth to pave the way.”

But paving that path comes with a price.

Ms. Long’s older sister, Kathy Herman, recalls the many Christmas dinners and family gatherings her sister couldn’t attend.

“We were worried about her a lot, and many times, we had no idea where she was,” Mrs. Herman said, recalling her sister’s service in the agency. “I hope that a lot of women take notice to what she has done — that they realize it’s not just a man’s world anymore, but to also remember it comes with a great deal of sacrifice.”

Ms. Long said her love for travel and service to the country outweighed the other paths she could have chosen. She took down a beautiful traditional Afghan dress that adorns her office. Holding the colorfully striped dress decorated with small mirrors, she recalled her recent trip to the war-torn region.

Next to the dress was a dark green and black Afghan “Chapan” robe, a traditional garb given to her by President Hamid Karzai, who has worn an exact duplicate on foreign visits.

She also visited Afghanistan’s opium fields, a subject familiar to her from her prior work in the CIA and Defense Department. She empathized with the poor farmers, some of whom made commitments never to cultivate the poppy again after realizing what the narcotics were being used for. As a reminder of the promise, one farmer broke a poppy-cutting tool in half and gave it to her as a gift.

As for her personal success, it doesn’t strike her as odd. She said there isn’t any clear-cut answer for women looking to choose a career in a male-dominated profession.

“There’s no cookie cutter,” Ms. Long said, before she left for another meeting. “I tend to do well in male-dominated professions. You really have to be yourself and trust your instincts. And you need to network like the boys.”

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