Diversity AT CIA
Several years ago I was sitting with a group of friends. We had all worked together at the Agency, I had even worked for some of them. They were older, both in years and an older generation, the generation that had fought in Korea and Vietnam. They had been good at their jobs, had placed themselves in danger time and time again in defense of their country. They believed communism was an evil that was bent on domination and would do ill to the U.S. at every opportunity. In truth, I share that belief. I admired them.
As is normal, the talk turned to what I call the “In My Day” conversation, where old people fondly remember their time in the spotlight, remembering all the good and ignoring the bad. Don’t laugh, your turn will come. They started telling stories of Agency officers they had known, pointing out which officer was incompetent, which officer had been promoted beyond their abilities, which had moved up due to adroit ass-kissing. The conversation ended, as many of these types of conversations end at the CIA, with the mantra that the Agency was going to hell because of political correctness, because of diversity. We were hiring to fill quotas rather than hiring the best people.
Some people will agree, others will see “the best people” as code for white males.
Being who I am, I turned to them and pointed out that every individual they cited as being promoted beyond their abilities, being incompetent, etc. was a white male. At no time did they cite a minority, a woman, an African American, a brown person, as an example of how messed up things were. Somewhat to their credit, they looked sheepish and acknowledged the fact.
I tell this story not to criticize them, and likely many of you will criticize me for not criticizing them. They are who they are and I will address that issue below, but I tell this story because diversity has a bad, and undeserved reputation within the Agency. Management will tell you that is false, they will point to a bunch of examples of how they are recruiting, promoting, a diverse population. The fact is, that within the majority of the CIA population, the above is how diversity is viewed.
The criticism usually centers around the themes you would expect. The Agency is hiring unqualified people to meet quotas or to be politically correct. The key here is that women and minorities are not as qualified as white men. They are getting promoted because they are female or minorities, and in a competitive promotion system, they are taking promotions from qualified officers. I have sat on Agency promotion panels and I have heard the lament of the unpromoted. The people who complain the loudest that a minority was promoted over them tend not to be promotable even if they were competing against a potato.
The CIA is a foreign intelligence collection and analysis agency. Its job is to recruit spies, collect intelligence from these spies, and provide timely analysis to policymakers on foreign issues that impact the U.S. To do that successfully we require a diverse workforce that understands foreign cultures, that understands foreign countries, their issues, problems, capabilities. It needs diverse opinions to ensure that we have looked at a problem from all angles. There are few things as dangerous in the world of intelligence as groupthink and projecting ourselves onto another nation. Those are recipes for disaster.
I have had young officers work for me who were shocked at what they found going overseas. With the exception of Western Europe, the rest of the world is not like the U.S. You might think that is obvious, and I thought so too, but many new hires at the CIA are stunned at the differences when they first go overseas. Depending on where one ends up there can be chaos, extreme poverty, rampant disease, not to mention the lack of reliable electricity, little to no supermarkets as we know them, alien cultures that are markedly different from that of the U.S. These conditions eventually took their toll on these officers who preferred going back home than staying overseas.
I asked myself all the same questions you are asking. Didn’t they know what they were signing up for? Didn’t they have the qualifications? I have no answer. They should have known what they had signed up for, but more importantly, they should have been excited about the prospect, the adventure, the education, of living overseas. For many, this is not the case.
What is the problem? There are many issues but let’s start with hiring. There is the fact that we, people in general, prefer to work with people like ourselves. This is not a race thing. We prefer people who enjoy what we enjoy, look at the world from a similar view, we like to work with people who we would be comfortable socializing with. Add to that the difficulty of getting hired by the CIA. 1 in 1500 is chosen to join. Once selected it can take upwards of two years before you leave your training and probationary period and are a full staff member.
Part of that is the selection process. The applications are stringently culled, followed by interviews and aptitude tests. There is a long background investigation and then the polygraph. That’s where things come into play. If we prefer people like ourselves then the interview process will be skewed to people like us. The background investigation (BI) is also a killer. If you are doing a BI it is easier to gather information and interview friends, family, and employers if you have lived your entire life in the U.S. The information is there in a tight package. If you were born overseas, or have extended family overseas, or have lived part of your life overseas, it becomes nearly impossible for investigators to check. They cannot simply show up in Peshawar and start asking people bout you and your family.
These are not insurmountable but they present challenges that make it more likely that someone from Kansas, who has never seen a foreigner, sorry Kansas, will be hired because he or she can pass the initial scrutiny rather than someone who was born in Pakistan and speaks native Urdu. Again, it is not impossible, I have met many officers working for the Agency who have these highly desirable backgrounds, but it is harder for them to get in, reducing the numbers of qualified individuals with foreign skill sets that we need.
Sometimes, if you ask these officers with foreign backgrounds, they might tell you of instances where they were treated as less, their opinions disregarded as being less because they were not “one of us.” Publicly CIA officers will tell you that while there are problems everything is all right, we are a family. Privately, maybe after a couple of drinks the truth will slowly come out and you find that we are a highly dysfunctional family, an alcoholic uncle, an abusive father, you get the picture.
This is not an us versus them issue. As I noted before, it is important to have diverse views, diverse capabilities, the ability to blend into the local population and understand the local culture, in order to succeed at our business. That is not to say that white males cannot do the job. Many of the best case officers I have know are white males. Many have learned multiple foreign languages, developed a profound understanding of foreign cultures. The best Arabist the CIA had was a white male. One of the best Iranian experts was a white male. I even hate to use the term white male because it fosters us versus them mentality. The point is not to exclude one group as better than another group, not to meet quotas, it is to include as many groups as we can so that our capabilities are as diverse as possible.
As to the friends I mentioned in the story that began this post, I will go out on a limb and tell you they are not bad people. This will likely draw criticism. Yes, their initial take on how diversity was negatively impacting the CIA was wrong. Many would call their views racist or misogynistic. You might be right, or you might be wrong, but the point I would like to make is that we are human and come with baggage. I have never seen or heard of them treat minorities in anything less than a professional and proper manner. They hold some very outdated and unacceptable views. They should be called on those views. But they also have good qualities as well. People are complex things and I have spent a lifetime in a people-centric occupation. I understand their views and concerns. I don't necessarily agree with them but I understand.
I will end with a story. I was once part of a group of Directorate of Operations (DO) officers attending a lunch at CIA HQS. The lunch was hosted by the Deputy Director of Operations (DDO), the head of the clandestine service. The guests were representatives from traditionally black colleges and universities. The DDO was trying to expand hiring at the CIA to include these institutions. I was sitting next to the Human Resource officer, who happened to be an African American female. As the DDO was in full swing with his presentation, I turned to the HR officer and said “doesn’t it seem self-defeating to try to make this pitch when, other than you, the only other black people in this room are the wait staff serving lunch?” That was the image we were presenting to the college administrators.