Charleroi native enjoyed stellar career with CIA
Karen Abraham can finally talk freely about her 37-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency – well, sort of.
A Charleroi native who retired from the CIA in April 2012, Abraham recently received the agency's Career Intelligence Medal, which reflects exceptional achievements that substantially contributed to the mission of the agency.
A resident of Fairfax, Va., Abraham detailed much of her past … at least, as much as she is permitted by the rules of national security outfit.
She was “open” her entire career, which means non-clandestine.
But even a photo Abraham submitted for this story could not include the faces of several people surrounding her at the award presentation ceremony.
“Being that I was on the finance side and worked budget, I could at least tell people that I worked for the CIA,” Abraham said. “People think if you work there you knew everything, and it's the total opposite.
“You only have access with what you need to know to get your job done. … There are still many instances where I have to say, ‘Let's just not go there.'”
A daughter of the late George and Luella “Sis” Theys of Charleroi, Abraham grew up on Round Street in the Magic City and graduated from Charleroi High School in 1974.
“I was raised in a very old-fashioned household to be a wife and mother. My father was the breadwinner, my mother didn't do anything outside of running the household and raising us,” Abraham said.
“I had the grades to go to college, but I couldn't see wasting my parents' money because I was going to get married and stay at home. But of all people, my mother said, ‘I at least want you to have a skill.'”
Always interested in travel, Abraham enrolled in airline school in Kansas City, Mo., but it was amid the energy crisis of the mid-1970s.
“I rode it out and it's a good thing I did, because the school's big selling point was they found you a job,” she said. “They brought in recruiters from the CIA and FBI because they do a lot of travel. I filled out a 17-page application and came back to Charleroi for four months.”
That's when both agencies came calling and, despite her father's trepidation, a teenaged Karen headed off to the nation's capital to work her first full-time job in a strange new world.
“The FBI called on a Monday and CIA called on a Wednesday. I chose the CIA because they offered a higher salary,” Abraham said, laughing. “The CIA put you up in housing for females and it happened to be on 14th and K Street, which was not the best section of town. My dad was afraid to leave me there, but he did and I was homesick for quite awhile.”
At the CIA, Abraham began by distributing mail from the payroll office.
She found the adjustment to living in a big city a bit easier as time passed, if only because the agency conducted various social gatherings among its employees, including intramural sports.
Her personal circle of friends included mostly coworkers because there was little other choice.
“You had to stay clean, so you had to run around with people you work with. … You had to take that social-lifestyle polygraph (test) every once in awhile,” she said. “Everyone integrated together because we were in the same boat and most of the others were from out of town too.”
In 1979, she met fellow CIA employee and Butler native Mike Abraham on a softball field.
Three years later, the two were married at St. Jerome Roman Catholic Church in Charleroi.
In the meantime, she labored in the payroll office and attended night school, taking classes to help with specific tasks of her job.
After nine years, Abraham was promoted to perform finance work in different areas of the agency and moved on to the resource side. She credits the blue-collar work ethic learned from her family in Charleroi with her advancement.
“One thing I learned from my father and family was always get it right and always do it better the next time,” Abraham said. “Whenever there was an opening, I feel like people opened doors for me.
“Somehow people noticed I could do more and they would tell me when there was an opening and to apply. … I always loved math and taking care of people and it spilled over.”
Abraham began working with Congressional budgets, putting them together and selling them to appropriation committees for approval.
Her husband, meanwhile, focused on obtaining funding for CIA operations.
Abraham said she spent a lot of time in a car, traveling from one government agency to another, and only was told what she needed to know.
“Like everything else, there were a lot of politics involved; you may have all the right answers but it still might not mean a thing,” Abraham said. “There was pressure to do what was right for the agency and you didn't always come out a winner.
“If you're working on a specific project or something that came from the White House, you'll know the end goal, but you'll only know the piece you need to know to do your job. It's known among you and your coworkers that you don't ask questions.”
In 1999, after four years of correspondence study with occasional travel back and forth to Harvard University, Abraham earned the equivalent of a masters degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Over the years, Abraham came in contact with numerous senators and even President George H.W. Bush when he was director of the CIA under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
She gushed when talking about being at CIA gatherings with his son, President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
“Every time I was in any proximity to people like that, you get this nostalgia, and it comes over you like a wave,” she said. “You realize how important that person is and how much respect you have for what they're dealing with or what the position stands for.”
Abraham's job also took her to exotic places, including Africa, Thailand and South America.
The last time she was in Africa, she traveled with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to honor the victims of the Aug. 7, 1998, embassy bombings in the East African capitals of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, the later in which a friend of Abraham's was killed.
“Even though we get bad-mouthed around the world, there are things with other governments we work with and they hold such high respect for us,” Abraham said.
“I got to see that firsthand when I traveled. There's politics involved, sure, but there's sincerity there too.”
Once, Abraham took a few extra days in Belgium to visit the town of Charleroi, for which the Mid-Mon Valley borough was named.
“I said, ‘I'm in Belgium, I'm going to see Charleroi,'” she recalled. “It's got a high population of people who have problems with alcohol, but it's still a beautiful town. They still have their glassmaking plants and do a lot of mining and have restored so much of it.”
Now that both Abraham and her husband have retired, she's able to come back to the Mid-Mon Valley to visit numerous relatives, including her 87-year-old aunt, Denise Bentz of North Charleroi.
But the Abrahams plan to remain in Virginia because it's the best location for their sons, Michael and Matthew.
“With so much family up there and my husband from Butler, you kind of always gravitate back home, but my two sons are best off in Virginia,” she said. “Right now, we're on hold.”
But that didn't stop family members from Charleroi, Belle Vernon, Fayette City and other places from attending her awards ceremony in April.
The medal had to be approved by both the director of the CIA and the director of national intelligence and is rarely presented to someone on the financial side.
Abraham said she couldn't help but think of her deceased parents and how far she had come from leaving Charleroi nearly four decades ago.
“My parents were scared to death when I came down here, and every time something good would happen or I got promoted, they were just beaming,” Abraham said.
“So many times they wanted me to come back home. The first couple years were rough, I was homesick and scared and I didn't have two nickels to rub together. … I know they would have been really, really proud.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.