An Intelligence Perspective – Diversity Challenges at the CIA

By: - October 20, 2020

Much has recently been said of President Donald J. Trump’s directive to shift away from the diversity and inclusion training curriculum, as it had evolved, provided to the U.S. Government workforce – specifically, the U.S. Intelligence Community. As with so many other issues relating to President Trump’s administration, it must be noted that President Trump’s shift in policy is not away from preceding administrations, but is a shift away from President Barack Obama’s policies of “transforming America.” In this instance, the evolution of diversity goals moved from racial equality and equal opportunity to racial equity based on the premise of innate bias and systemic racism. Herein, we will explore the complex nature of the intelligence operations within the USG, the personnel and environmental requirements for the conduct of Human Intelligence (HUMINT), Human Resources’ and training trends of clandestine HUMINT practitioners, and how diversity, demographic statistics and inclusion differ within a bureaucratic infrastructure.

Although a discussion of the broad scope and requirements of human, signal, geospatial, measurements, imagery, and electronic intelligence would be too cumbersome for a single article, it is important to recognize that the demographic profile and value of diverse experiences within a domestic analytic, technical, or support office may vary significantly from the foreign field collectors engaged in espionage. Thus, as a baseline for this article, we will concentrate on the mission of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and diversity as it relates to intelligence officers who conduct clandestine HUMINT collection and dissemination of Foreign Intelligence (FI).

Let’s start with the fundamental issue of CIA’s mission or, in other words, identifying the unique contribution CIA provides to the federal government. Since 1947, that unique contribution or mission has remained the clandestine collection and dissemination of HUMINT-derived intelligence to strategic customers, and the conduct of Covert Action as directed by the President. All other operational, technical and administrative functions exist to support that collection mission.

To be thorough, it should be noted that analysis was not included above as either core mission nor as supporting mission because CIA’s mission is neither the dissemination of finished intelligence nor should analysts act in direct support of collection while driving it through tasking. All-source analysis, as envisioned in the USIC, must retain independence from the respective collection sources and, as such was restricted from conducting analysis at the creation of the CIA in 1947. Today, finished analysis plays an increasingly limited, but important roll in strategic planning, due to the speed of the modern news cycle necessitating direct dissemination of raw reporting. CIA’s analysis has also become increasingly less unique, as the 17 USIC agencies have incorporated tens of thousands of all-source analysts into their collective infrastructure. Perhaps in recognition of this latter point, Director John Brennan’s reorganization of CIA embedded analysis within operational mission centers, lead by collectors and acting in direct support of collection. This co-purposing of analysts both tasking collection and then acting in direct support of collection is an obvious conflict of interest, which has undermined the credibility of CIA analysis compared to other independent all-source products. Concurrently, this co-mingling of analytic tasking and operational targeting roles has also imparted the potential for cognitive bias within the analytic cadre, based on moral idealism. That is to say, a collector is taught the principle of cultural moral relativism, or simply recognizing and accepting the cultural beliefs and behaviors present in an environment or individual and compartmenting that from mission requirements in the recruitment and handling of sources. Many of CIA’s most controversial actions, from the perspective of intelligence oversight or the public, have resulted from this clash between operational moral relativism and the moral idealism of intelligence consumers.

This innate conflict between moral relativism and moral idealism in a clandestine intelligence service within a constitutional republic is an important factor, not just in the conduct of our profession but in the inclusion of a diversified and demographically acceptable workforce. As we explore these mutually exclusive terms, we need to keep focused on why CIA exists and what unique role it brings to the federal government. With mission as a backdrop we can then explore mission requirements in the conduct of these activities and some of the real barriers to achieving a balance between our institutional moral relativism and moral idealism.

The conduct of espionage entails the development of a human reporting source with access to information needed by U.S. policy makers. Most commonly, the development of a source takes place either within the source’s home nation or in a third nation in which the collector and the source both reside. As no one individual is obliged to assist the U.S. as a reporting source, and blackmail has proven both ineffective and unsavory to moral idealists, CIA collectors must adapt to the environment in which they reside as well as understand and appear to adopt some of the source’s perspective, values, and interests. The collector must also understand and manipulate the inherent biases of the source, which can be either beneficial or detrimental to the developmental relationship.

Therefore, diversity of experiences and skills, and CIA’s intelligence collectors’ demographic profile must be built in the context of collection targets, the environments in which collection is conducted, diversity to enhance recruitment and FI collection, the biases and attitudes of the societies and cultures we are targeting, and the development of our officers to promote their successful inclusion into operational programs.

Although isolated examples are usually of little value in creating policy, in this exploration of the issue it may be useful in highlighting or emphasizing a more common theme. Thus, while serving as the curriculum director for America’s spy school I was deeply involved in trying to identify and resolve the troubling pattern of blacks and Korean operational collector candidates’ disproportionately high failure rate. This was not a limited review but, rather, a comprehensive study on CIA’s identifying, recruiting, training and professional development of these candidates to understand why this trend existed. Our findings revealed that institutional practices were not aligned with mission requirements and that societal barriers existed which hampered the efforts of many generations.

Specifically, in both instances, although most candidates were found to be exceptionally talented and skilled, they were less prepared through life experiences and institutional development programs to meet the training standards which emphasized curiosity, cultural flexibility, broad social engagement and manipulation. That is, these candidates were more likely to come from isolated or insular backgrounds than other candidates. The reasons were distinct between the two groups, whereas Korean candidates were most frequently introduced to the organization through a family member, friend or other respected contact and the black candidates were most frequently identified through dedicated recruitment programs in traditionally black universities.

As such, we found that Korean candidates predominately came from more traditional, close-knit families and communities with less exposure through social interaction, dating, worship services, etc. with diverse populations. Black candidates, on the other hand, were more likely to come from predominantly black communities with comparatively less social engagement with the foreign cultures, perceptions and practices that were emphasized during training.

The result of these findings broadened our recruitment efforts in both instances, for a period of time, but the institution was unable to adopt creative solutions, such as shifting from a one-size-fits-all career training model to a modular development program capable of providing specialized social, academic or cultural and sometimes language development experiences tailored to a candidate’s individual needs. Eventually, the agency reverted back to old practices when political influence, federally mandated requirements, moral idealism and lower recruiting numbers arose.

A recent report said that 26.5% of CIA’s staff are an ethnic minority, which is certainly plausible, but the illogical and/or disingenuous response to this statistic reflected more a political bias than a thoughtful understanding of either CIA’s mission or its personnel recruitment efforts. As the vignette above highlights, it is not for a lack of trying nor existence of dedicated hiring programs for the inclusion of minorities that these numbers exist across the agency. What we learned of our institutional challenges was coupled with the impact of community perspectives regarding government service generally and CIA employment specifically.

Among our findings on societal challenges, not unique to minority communities but of greater impact given smaller populations, were that some families from impacted communities push their children towards academic excellence in the hard sciences, health or the law and discourage their children from pursuing less prestigious or lower paying professions in government service. Some communities were distrusting of the government, law enforcement or by extension the intelligence community. Some communities had religious or other convictions which created pressure on potential candidates to not consider employment in a clandestine security service, serving in war zones, or lying, cheating and stealing to make a living. Last, but certainly not least, it was rare to find a minority candidate with the academic credentials, language skills and overseas experience, able to meet the security clearance requirements, and who wasn’t also being offered a private sector starting salary two or three times greater than what the CIA offered.

What hasn’t worked at CIA is conflating diversity, with demographics, with inclusion, and instituting federal workforce programs in this highly specialized mission. Nowhere else in government is the successful conduct and execution of a critical function of government more dependent upon the environment and its interlocutors than in the recruitment of foreign spies working against their country, community, and social values.

By way of CIA’s tradition never to pose a challenge without a potential solution, An Intelligence Perspective notes that CIA enjoys the support and assistance of many prominent people, companies and organizations who represent portals into minority communities and the families of potential candidates. Broad recruiting drives at universities and internet advertising serve some valuable service, but less so where societal traditions and perceptions represent a significant challenge. If CIA is to be criticized in this regard it is due to the leadership’s visionless practice of continuing outdated and failed recruitment approaches for highly selective service.

In closing, broad pronouncements and generalizations on the culture or demographic composition of CIA’s staff, without thoughtful consideration of the relevant issues are not indicative of An Intelligence Perspective. Too often, current and past managers have simplified this politically charged issue into soundbites to voice their affiliation with or allegiance to a political group or philosophy without regard for furthering the mission of the institution. The solution to establishing a well-balanced workforce, with the diversity of talent and demographic composition to both move mission forward and protect the mission profile from counterintelligence threats entails a singular focus on mission requirements, a selective process of recruitment of personnel through portals into social, cultural and academic communities, tailoring professional development after employment, maintaining high standards of training, and thoughtfully including the entirety of the workforce into the careers and programs in which they will have the greatest impact. That would require dismantling much of the embedded policies, practices and personnel currently advocating the failed but predictable system in place today.