From the aisles of a 747 to the halls of academia to the upper echelons of U.S. foreign policymaking, Mary O’Neil McCarthy has found many ways to live out her girlhood
desire to “see the world.”
by Kate Tyler
For over two decades, she has cast an appraising eye on the world’s dramas and hotspots as an intelligence expert for the CIA and the White House. But as a onetime overseas flight attendant for Pan Am—and even as a budding scholar of African history—she never imagined she would travel quite so far.
Originally of East Lansing, Mich., McCarthy majored in history at Michigan State and then fell in love with Africa while flying for Pan Am Airlines. A born multitasker, she was already juggling bimonthly New York-Africa flights with the demands of an M.A. program in African history at Michigan State. Soon, she was commuting to the University of Minnesota, earning first a master’s in library science and then a Ph.D. in history while her husband, Michael McCarthy, pursued a doctorate in American studies.
After moving to Washington, D.C., she worked as a globetrotting “risk assessment” analyst for multinational corporations before joining the CIA. “At first I said, CIA—no way; I’m a child of the sixties,” McCarthy recalls. “But it turned out to be a fascinating job—and the culture of the agency was dominated by ‘smart skeptics,’ so I fit right in.”
Hired as an analyst for Africa, McCarthy rose to become the intelligence officer charged with identifying key national security threats around the globe. From 1996–2001, she moved into a more policymaking sphere when she was assigned to the National Security Council in the White House.
“It was a pretty interesting job, I have to say,” says McCarthy, who served both presidents Clinton and Bush. She found Clinton “brilliant” and his White House at the top of its game, even amid the “surreal distraction” of the impeachment hearings (“unless you passed the TV, you wouldn’t even think about it”). She often worked 16-hour days, and on top of that was regularly yanked from concerts and dinner parties by, say, a crisis in the Balkans. Yet, says McCarthy, “I never left the White House without thinking what an incredible privilege it was to have the trust of presidents and be able to serve.”
Her departure from the CIA in 2006 was eventful: Just days before she was to retire, she was sent packing for reasons that remain murky (and that she and reliable news accounts suggest may be largely political). McCarthy, an old hand at bumpy landings, has in any case moved on with aplomb. A sought-after consultant on terrorism and foreign policy, she recently lent her expertise to a task force studying the radicalization process. “I’m also hoping to specialize in taking vacations,” says McCarthy. Whether that’s in her DNA code is an open question. Just two years ago, she polished off a law degree at Georgetown University, and she allows that she’s now both writing legal articles and sketching out a novel set in the national security world.
She speaks with warm admiration of all she learned from her Minnesota teachers—from Phil Porter, whose prescient warnings about the global impact of greenhouse gases “have long stayed with me”; to Allen Isaacman, her adviser, “who taught me to ask questions—to understand that information always comes from a particular mindset, motivation, and world view.”
“The other valuable thing Allen taught me was not to dabble at anything you care about—to put yourself fully into everything you do,” McCarthy adds. “I hope he’d say I’ve done that.”