In the years after it was founded in 1947, the CIA implemented rigorous hiring policies. This was an organization that demanded the best of the best. Potential CIA analysts were put through not only a thorough background investigation, polygraph examination, and financial and credit reviews, but also a battery of psychological and medical exams. And there is no doubt they hired exceptional people.
"The two major exams were an SAT-style test to probe a candidate's intelligence and a psychological profile to examine their mental state," a CIA veteran told me. "The tests filtered out anyone who was not stellar on both tests. In the year I applied, they accepted one candidate for every twenty thousand applicants. When the CIA talked about hiring the best, they were bang on the money."
And yet most of these recruits also happened to look very similar: white, male, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Americans. This is a common phenomenon in recruiting, sometimes called homophily: people tend to hire people who look and think like themselves. It is validating to be surrounded by people who share one's perspectives, assumptions, and beliefs. As the old saying goes, birds of a feather flock together. In their meticulous study of the CIA, Jones and Silberzahn write, "The first consistent attribute of the CIA's identity and culture from 1947 to 2001 is homogeneity of its personnel in terms of race, sex, ethnicity, and class background (relative both to the rest of America and to the world as a whole)." Here is the finding of an inspector general's study on recruitment:
In 1964, the Office of National Estimates [a part of the CIA] had no Black, Jewish, or women professionals, and only a few Catholics... In 1967, it was revealed that there were fewer than twenty African Americans among the approximately twelve thousand nonclerical CIA employees. According to a former CIA case officer and recruiter, the agency was not hiring African Americans, Latinos, or other minorities in the 1960s, a habit that continued through the 1980s.... Until 1975, the IC [the U.S. intelligence community] openly barred the employment of homosexuals.
In June 1979, the agency was taken to court for failing to promote female operations officers, settling out of court the following year. A few years later, the agency paid out $410,000 to settle a gender discrimination case brought by an officer with twenty-four years of experience. In 1982, the CIA paid $1 million in a class-action case accusing the agency of the same biases. And yet the CIA didn't significantly alter its personnel policies. "Nothing really changed," one analyst said.
Talking about his experience in the CIA in the 1980s, one insider wrote, "The recruitment process for the clandestine service led to new officers who looked very much like the people who recruited them—white, mostly Anglo-Saxon, middle and upper class, liberal arts college graduates Few non-Caucasians, few women. Few ethnics, even of recent European background. In other words, not even as much diversity as there was among those who had helped create the CIA."
At a conference in 1999 entitled "U.S. Intelligence and the End of the Cold War," there were thirty-five speakers and presenters, of which thirty-four were white males. "The one exception was a white female who introduced a dinner speaker." Of the three hundred people who attended, fewer than five were not white.
There are no publicly available numbers on the religious orientation of CIA officials responsible for deciding the agency's tasking priorities, but Jones and Silberzahn state, "We can assume based on what we know of Langley's homogeneity that there were few (if any) Muslims among them." This was corroborated by a former CIA staffer, who said, "Muslims were virtually nonexistent."
Diversity was squeezed further after the end of the Cold War. Legacy of Ashes, by the Pulitzer Prizewinning reporter Tim Weiner, quotes Robert Gates, director of the CIA in the early 1990s, as saying that the agency became less willing to employ "people who are a little different, people who are eccentric, people who don't look good in a suit and tie, people who don't play well in the sandbox with others. The kinds of tests that we make people pass, psychological and everything else, make it hard for somebody [with] unique capabilities to get into the agency."
A former operations officer said that through the 1990s, the CIA had a "white-as-rice culture." In the months leading up to 9/11, an essay written for the International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence commented, "From its inception, the intelligence community [has been] staffed by the white male Protestant elite, not just because that was the class in power, but because that elite saw itself as the guarantor and protector of American values and ethics."