WASHINGTON — To achieve its mission in a rapidly evolving world, the Central Intelligence Agency is moving to blend in.
“Even going back to the times of the Greeks and Romans, the way you get information is not to look different from the people you’re trying to get information from,” said Harold Tate, the deputy director of support for management and modernization at the CIA.
The CIA’s mission is: “Preempt threats and further U.S. national security objectives by collecting intelligence that matters, producing objective all-source analysis, conducting effective covert action as directed by the President and safeguarding the secrets that help keep our Nation safe.”
During a discussion with five minority CIA officers about the agency’s diversity and inclusion record, Tate, an African-American, said, “I’m a second-generation officer. My father started working here in 1955.”
That year the CIA was struggling to get the upper hand on a formidable enemy in Eastern Europe. The Pentagon had announced plans to develop ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) armed with nuclear weapons.
At the same time, the agency, created in 1947, was struggling with its national identity. It reflected what America was waking up to: A civil rights struggle that would sweep the nation and penetrate the agency as well.
In December of that year, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person, sparking a national civil rights movement that would shine a harsh spotlight on racial inequality in the U.S.
The CIA had already been thinking about that.
“The landmark study back in 1953 called the Petticoat Panel, which looked at women in the CIA, was really the first historic moment when CIA thought about its workforce and what it was experiencing,” said Carmen Middleton, a Latina and director of the CIA’s Center for Mission Diversity and Inclusion.
Middleton says that another review in 1992, called “The Glass Ceiling Study,” establishes that the CIA has “this rich history in taking on important, challenging and sometimes uncomfortable questions around diversity and inclusion.”
Sheronda Dorsey literally came face-to-face with one of those “uncomfortable questions” in 1989, when she began working as an imagery analyst. “They had very few minorities; they had very few women and they had very few young adults,” she said.
Now, deputy director in the Office of Corporate Business, she vividly remembers a pivotal interaction early in her career.
“I actually had a senior analyst make a comment to me saying ‘I should’ve known that you wouldn’t know the answer to that question,'” Dorsey said.
That moment, Dorsey said, set the course for her career, during which she’s made it a point “to make sure I was viewed based on my competence — not my age, color of my skin or my gender.”
Keeping secrets and learning the secrets of others around the world is a key part of the CIA’s job, but the agency has said that in order to do that, it needs to look, think and act more like the world.
In a 2007 interview with WTOP, Ricky Jasper, an African-American who was at the time diversity plans and programs manager, said it’s all about mission success.
“In order to be successful as an organization, doing the mission that we do in the area of collecting information and analyzing it, we have to have diversity of thought, culture and views,” he said. “Often the targets that we have as an organization are not Americans, quite frankly, so the diversity plays into the complete operation, from establishing what the operation will look like to execution of the operation.”
Cyril Sartor, director of the Office of Analysis for Africa, Latin American and Global Issues, said he’s seen the benefit.
Toni Hiley, CIA Museum curator, is seen standing at the agency’s Wall of Stars. (Courtesy CIA)
“I led an office that worked on Asian analysis, and I know the information we provided to the policy-makers to enable them to make decisions was more informed and more nuanced, because many of the officers who worked with me were fluent with Korean, Chinese or other languages,” he said.
“They had personal experiences living in those areas. They had relatives; they understood the culture in those areas, and I could tell that the analysis was enhanced by their expertise, knowledge and diversity,” Sartor added.
Analyst Kim Ofobike, a 10-year CIA veteran from Akron, Ohio, marvels each day when she walks across the great seal at the CIA headquarters.
“I think, how did that girl from Akron, Ohio get here?”
Her answer is: the unique skill set she brings to the job.
“I know that as an African-American woman, I’m going to come at a problem set in a different way than some of my white male colleagues that might be from New York City,” she said.
The problem sets are plentiful. Whether it’s in Benghazi, Cairo, Beijing, Moscow, Caracas, Tehran or Kabul, the rapid pace of geopolitical, technological, social and cultural change suggest all CIA employees will have to give some — and some will have to give all, as depicted by the Wall of Stars.
As of April 8, 2014, there were 107 stars on the wall. CIA Museum curator Toni Hiley said they include “three African-Americans, two native Americans and two Asian – Americans and 10 women.”