The CIA’s Long and Winding Road to Diversity

The CIA’s slick new TV and video recruitment ad reflects the image of what I hope the agency sincerely aims to become, since it bears little resemblance to the organization from which I retired barely a year ago. When I joined in the early 1980s, the halls were a sea of White, Christian men. I recall a senior officer seeking to discourage my initial desired assignment at the time to the Near East and South Asia Division of the Directorate of Operations (the Clandestine Service) asking me something like, “So, do you wear being Jewish on your sleeve?” The discriminatory dynamic remains more than skin deep today.

In my early days at the agency, the Clandestine Service appeared little changed from the “Ivy League gentlemen” who formed it in 1947. It’s arguable that even “Wild” Bill Donovan’s World War II Office of Strategic Services (OSS), from which the CIA claims its roots, was more inclined to employ women and religious minorities than its successor agency, given the likes of famous OSS agents revealed much later, like Boston Red Sox catcher Moe Berg and chef Julia Child.

Certainly I benefited from White, if not religious, privilege, though circumstances are far better today than in the CIA’s early days. Still, the agency’s recruitment and advancement system is hardly the bastion of transparency, equality, and diversity that it should be, as reflected in a 2015 study conducted at the behest of then-Director John Brennan by a panel led by civil rights activist Vernon Jordan. It concluded, “The Agency’s workforce is not diverse. Where diversity can be found, it is not found at all levels of the organization or across occupations … In fact, the more senior the Agency’s workforce is, the less diverse it is.”

Jordan wrote in his foreword to the report that Brennan had requested the assessment due to “the fact that the senior ranks of Agency employees—including the Senior Intelligence Service (SIS)—do not reflect the diversity of our nation and our society. At the same time, the Director expressed his concern that an absence of diversity at the senior levels of the CIA is itself an obstacle to the advancement of talented and experienced intelligence officers.” Vernon then stated matter-of-factly: “The Director’s concerns are well founded.”

Indeed, the young men filling the ranks of CIA’s Clandestine Service have been and remain predominantly Catholic and White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, most still coming from what leadership considered “the best schools and families,” recruited more for their pedigree than their skills or their experience with personal or societal adversity that might steel them for their many difficult missions. The self-congratulatory comments I’ve seen on social media of late from former CIA colleagues affirming the agency’s positive diversity record come largely from those who rose to their heights in the discriminatory system that facilitated their success. The “star chamber” of cronyism, steeped in the common backgrounds and experiences of the service’s leadership, remains well-entrenched.

There were few people of color, naturalized Americans, religious minorities, or women at the agency when I began, and those hired were mostly in administrative support positions. There were some women on the analytical side, but few among case officers. Looking at my own class, there were fewer than one woman for every 10 men, only two Latinx, two Jews, and not a single Black American, Asian American, or South Asian American. Being one of the two Jews, I was encouraged by a personnel manager to consider the Directorate of Operations’ East Asia Division where, he told me, “Jewish officers are more competitive.”  In fact, two high-ranking division leaders advised that I would be “best-served by considering other divisions where being Jewish was less of a handicap.”

Many of those with whom I began my career are now running the agency. More than a few of these now-senior officers had proudly associated themselves with the alternative variant of the CIA’s acronym, “Catholics in Action.” Moreover, the more racially intolerant and misogynist among them disparagingly made quips such as, “the Directorate of Operations, where the men are men, and so are the women.” In fact, the Clandestine Service’s senior ranks include many who were handpicked by a long-serving leader who openly disparaged women, LGBTQ individuals, and officers who did not fit the White, Catholic box, myself included. In one particular message he sent to the Directorate of Operations workforce, he began by introducing himself to those not yet familiar as a “strict Catholic from Ohio.” He even regularly made it known that he was of the conservative Opus Dei order. As a result, his policies and proteges would reflect his religious views, the impact of which remains today in the makeup of the agency’s leadership.

Box-Checking Diversity Training 

The agency requires its workforce to undergo all manner of training and workshops concerning bias awareness, discrimination, and fair practices. Most such training is online and a box-check that arms the CIA with metrics to deflect criticism concerning hiring, promotion, and workplace practices. And while the hiring of women, people of color, and naturalized Americans has improved quantitatively, having nowhere to go but up, the prevailing atmosphere and culture continues to favor White, Christian men, particularly in the Clandestine Service, and most notably at the higher ranks. In fact, the 2015 report stated, “The empirical evidence that we examined clearly suggests that over the past twenty years—in several critical areas—the senior leadership of the CIA has become less diverse.”

Leadership talks a good game, and I welcome CIA Director Gina Haspel’s support for the current advertisement’s intent. But old attitudes die slowly, and Haspel is not free from responsibility for enabling existing exclusionary practices. Though she is the first woman to lead the agency, she is White and thus was in a position to benefit from the cronyism herself by cultivating close personal relationships with influential figures who smoothed her advancement.

Even Senior Intelligence Service Officers who are less than discreet in their leveraging of power to commit sexual harassment, for example, continue to be only slowly weeded out, a predilection of the club to take care of its own. A recent sexual harassment case, for example, involved allegations against a senior member of the Clandestine Service, but was kept relatively quiet. Privacy considerations understood, it might have better facilitated change were the case highlighted as an example of what can no longer be tolerated, particularly among the most senior leaders. CIA’s own 2015 study recommended publicizing “to the maximum extent possible, the results of career management processes” such as Equal Employment Opportunity complaints and grievances.

It’s not by accident that the few Black case officers who have advanced to senior leadership positions spent the majority of their careers in the agency’s Africa Division, rather than having been spread more throughout the organization. For years, the Directorate of Operations considered that “a better fit.” A rotational assignment for such offers was more likely in the Middle East or Latin America than Europe, Central Eurasia, or the Far East. Latinx case officers likewise found themselves directed to the Latin America Division, many only getting other opportunities by virtue of the need to fill the large staffing requirements for the war zones.

Recruitment and Security Screening

During one short spell I did, between assignments, for the agency’s recruitment center, I noticed the cookie-cutter mold of candidate packages I was reviewing. I asked why so few Black and Latinx candidates were in our pipeline. One of the managers responded that they didn’t want to join the CIA if they had skills that might yield better opportunities in the private sector. The White, Christian officers who comprised the entire cast doing the recruiting seemed to agree. I found it an excuse more reflective of agency attitudes than the candidate pool. The 2015 study likewise highlighted the negative impact of CIA’s lack of engagement with and awareness of the communities from which more diverse candidates would come.

A senior Black officer I respected would later take over the center and made strides in expanding diversity efforts. But generational attitudes are slow to change, as are systemic impediments. A telling graph from the CIA’s 2015 study reflects how Black representation in the workforce barely budged over a decade, from 10.55 percent in FY 2004 to only 10.83 percent in FY 2014. More telling was how Black representation at the Senior Intelligence Service ranks leading CIA decreased during that time, from 4.81 percent to 4.38 percent.

The CIA’s security screening process remains one of the greatest obstacles to a more diverse workforce reflective of America’s population. I found an innate bias in the process against people of color as well as against naturalized and first-generation Americans, and a process that is outdated, ill-designed, and not staffed by the most worldly or diverse array of people. Like many of America’s standardized academic-testing practices, the process is culturally biased, being based on a candidate profile that dates to another age. While leadership emphasizes the need to expedite the inordinately slow process so as not to lose candidates, in reality, the mechanisms require serious reform and technical enhancement to expand the pool and gain the right recruits. This was echoed by the 2015 study’s recommendation that the agency “streamline and modernize the initial clearance process to accelerate the identification and entrance on duty of talented minority employees.”

A first step might be to populate the staff conducting the investigations with individuals who more accurately reflect America. Having been both the subject of routine re-investigations and a reference for others, it was often apparent during interviews that investigators took a very black and white approach, figuratively and literally: officers who were people of color seemed innately suspect for criminal activities and drug use, while naturalized and first-generation Americans had to overcome suspicion of possible ties to transnational terrorist organizations. Ironically, it was easier for those whose families came from former communist countries to overcome security investigations than those who were people of color or Muslim.

Unquestionably, our adversaries are trying to infiltrate the U.S. Intelligence Community with plants, but far more of the moles we have arrested for espionage have been White, Christian men. This includes perhaps the most damaging of them all — and himself a member of the Catholic Opus Dei order — former FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen. More broadly and systemically, based on having spent the better part of my own nearly four decades recruiting spies from other countries, CIA would do better if it were focused less on profiling, presumptions, and bias, and more on character, integrity, and life experience. As America’s premier civilian external intelligence agency, the pity is how much stronger CIA would be were it to stand behind its words on diversity and inclusion. It’s purely practical, when you imagine the additional experience, skills, and connections that would be available by leveraging the country’s diverse population, operating as CIA does in the world’s every clime and place.

Beyond the wide-ranging perspectives, consider the richness of languages, experiences, cultural knowledge, and contacts that America’s many communities offer — skills and backgrounds that are invaluable in spying, analyzing, translating, and communicating in the many challenging foreign environments in which CIA operates. Those who have had to overcome obstacles make for the best case officers, whose ability to manage dynamic circumstances under pressure can make the difference between life and death. Though case officers in the field navigate such trials and risks based on their internal strengths, most are still assessed by what’s on the outside.

When I left CIA in 2019, the organization still used the polygraph, but it had long since stopped asking questions concerning sexual orientation that barred LGBTQ individuals. No one would any longer ask me to my face whether or not my “Jewishness” interfered with my objectivity. And there were far more women in senior positions, including the first to hold the offices of CIA director and deputy director for operations. Unfortunately, the cronyism that still prevailed remained a function of background and associations as much as sex, color, or race.

As America is forced to take a hard look at itself amid the current demands for social justice, I hope the CIA and the rest of the Intelligence Community does the same. The CIA’s new advertising campaign needs to be reinforced by more than actors of color hired to play the roles. It requires CIA leadership to embrace and prioritize such change, to remove the obstacles, and break the cycle of discrimination and cronyism that run at odds with the idealized mantra of recruiting and advancing the “best and brightest.”  For now, though, the recruitment pipeline, like the investigations process, remains steeped in CIA’s past, rather than today’s realities, let alone its future.

IMAGE: CIA officers recruitment ad screenshot.

 

About the Author(s)

Douglas London

Retired Senior CIA Operations Officer, Adjunct Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. Mr. London retired from his position at CIA at the end of 2018. Follow him on Twitter (@douglaslondon5).