Kevin Wolf / AP

Why black spies matter

The CIA’s lack of diversity and abuse of detainees point to a rogue agency that is not democratically accountable

July 24, 2015 2:00AM ET

On July 14, Iran and six world powers signed a historic nuclear deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear ambitious in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions. The deal evoked some skepticism among Middle Eastern countries, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, that view Iran as a destabilizing force.

For Jeffrey Sterling, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who is serving a 42-month prison term under the Espionage Act for leaking details of Washington’s covert mission to stop Iran’s nuclear program, the news did not promise any changes.

Sterling has long maintained that the CIA retaliated against him for questioning racial bias at the agency, where, as he put it in a letter to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, he was deemed “too big and too black” to move up the ranks. The CIA does not release data on its racial demographics, but a recent internal report on diversity affirms some of Sterling’s allegations of bias. Minorities accounted for less than 24.8 percent of its workforce and only 10.8 percent of its top leadership, according to the report. The CIA’s lack of diversity underscores the racial underpinnings of the global “war on terrorism,” in which white CIA officers torture nonwhite others in secret prisons and incinerate them with drone missiles.

The CIA, which defines ethnic and racial minorities as anyone other than whites of European descent, appears to disregard the values of racial equality that other taxpayer-funded institutions are legally bound to embrace. Coupled with the agency’s treatment of Sterling, the latest findings paint a picture of an organizational culture that identifies whiteness with leadership ability and loyalty. The elevation of whiteness also suggests that nonwhite Americans cannot be trusted with the agency’s highly secretive and sensitive work. Even more disconcerting, the report found that “the agency does not recognize the value of diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives,” and as a result, it does not consistently promote an inclusive “speak up culture.”

The Sterling saga

Sterling joined the CIA in 1993. He was assigned to the agency’s Iran task force and went to language school to learn Farsi. In 1997, as he was preparing to leave for his first overseas posting, he was replaced at the last minute. “We were concerned that you would stand out as a big black guy speaking Farsi,” he said his supervisor told him. Sterling, who was often the only African-American at a given subunit, was then moved around various offices. The CIA often tried to portray him as an angry black spy. His internal discrimination complaint went nowhere, and he was fired in 2001. His federal discrimination lawsuit was dismissed after the agency argued the trial would reveal state secrets.

After leaving the CIA, Sterling contacted several elected officials about his qualms regarding the Iran program. In 2003 he told Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staffers that the program had serious flaws, including that portions of the blueprints that the CIA planned to pass to the Iranians through a Russian intermediary could help Tehran improve its nuclear technology. The CIA was livid when that became public, and the Justice Department launched an investigation into Sterling. The lengthy battle ended earlier this year when all-white jury in Virginia found him guilty for leaking state secrets to investigative journalist James Risen, who wrote extensively about the CIA’s program. 

Former CIA Director Leon Panetta touted ‘a comprehensive initiative to strengthen workforce diversity.’ But his initiative went nowhere.

The CIA’s diversity report substantiates many of Sterling’s allegations — lack of an inclusive culture, the dominance of white male career officers, lack of appreciation for diversity of opinions and exclusion of nonwhite officers. The report makes stern recommendations to reverse this trend. But the CIA’s deeply entrenched culture suggests immediate changes are unlikely.

In March 2011, former CIA Director Leon Panetta touted “a comprehensive initiative to strengthen its workforce diversity,” which he said began in 2008. The report shows that his initiative went nowhere. 

A white CIA at war

The agency’s unethical and illegal practices are widely known. In the past few months, the public was treated to the CIA’s repeated failings, from the Senate report that disclosed torture of detainees to the cache of 14,000 photographs that show naked detainees and at least one waterboarding bench. In the latest expose, a review conducted by the American Psychological Association revealed that the CIA colluded with the group’s members to facilitate human experimentation, which included forcing detainees do dog tricks such as forcing them to bark and hydrating them until they urinated on themselves.

Nevertheless, the CIA’s organizational culture, which values whiteness and sees the recasting of its foreign covert action as requiring the abuse and torture of nonwhite enemies, is rarely discussed. To be sure, a racially egalitarian CIA that values diversity would not be a foil against torture. Black, Asian and Latino spies are no less capable of committing abusive acts than their white counterparts. But that different perspectives are not valued in the agency shows how institutionalized racial dynamics replicate themselves in its penchant for defining global warfare as requiring the torture and abuse of racially disparate others.

Many minorities express interest in and apply to work for the CIA. However, it appears that white spies are more easily able to satisfy the lengthy background checks and security clearances. In other words, white recruits have a better chance of being deemed loyal enough to be hired as spies.

Consequently, that the CIA continues to have a white leadership and to engage in torture of nonwhites paints a picture of rogue agency that is not democratically accountable, in which the “unqualified” officer and the enemy are both racially constructed. In this sense, the agency’s lack of diversity and flagrant abuse of detainees are symptoms of the same condition: an organization intoxicated by the secrecy of its work and the racial uniformity of its workforce, which deems nearly anything it does, from harassing African-American whistleblowers to torturing detainees, as acceptable and necessary.

The Iran deal is expected to render the CIA’s covert Iran program and its accusations against Sterling moot. But unfortunately, the CIA’s race problem is likely to remain untouched for some time to come.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

CIA, Torture, US-Iran Diplomacy

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