Before we realized Bill Cosby’s halo was broken, he played a U.S. intelligence officer on NBC’s “I Spy.” There weren’t many black folks on television in the 1960s, and there is too little diversity among the spies and others in national security agencies now.
That’s why President Obama directed agencies “to strengthen the talent and diversity” of their organizations.
“Our greatest asset in protecting the homeland and advancing our interests abroad is the talent and diversity of our national security workforce,” said a presidential memorandum issued Wednesday.
National security agencies “are less diverse on average than the rest of the Federal Government,” including at the senior leadership levels, Obama said in the memorandum. “While these data do not necessarily indicate the existence of barriers to equal employment opportunity, we can do more to promote diversity in the national security workforce.”
Obama told the agencies to take a series of steps to improve diversity, including collecting, analyzing and disseminating workforce data, providing professional development opportunities and strengthening leadership accountability. He said his directive “emphasizes a data-driven approach in order to increase transparency and accountability at all levels.”
Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, praised the data collection as “a necessary first step in recognizing the scope of the problem” to design appropriate solutions.
Obama pointed to the pervasive, insidious role of implicit bias, making “implicit or unconscious bias training mandatory for senior leadership and management positions, as well as for those responsible for outreach, recruitment, hiring, career development, promotion, and security clearance adjudication.”
In June, the Justice Department mandated implicit bias training for its law enforcement officers and prosecutors. In May, acting Office of Personnel Management Director Beth Cobert told federal officials that unconscious bias is a major barrier to diversity and inclusion.
Obama also wants agencies to interview a representative cross-section of staffers, including “exit interviews or surveys of all departing personnel to understand better their reasons for leaving.” That information will analyzed by demographics.
Increasing federal workplace diversity has long been a priority for Obama, as demonstrated by his 2011 executive order promoting diversity and inclusion.
This current effort was driven by National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice. During the last several months, she assembled national security officials in the White House situation room to discuss ways to promote diversity. Her May Florida International University commencement address largely focused on the need to improve national security diversity.
Quoting former Florida senator Bob Graham (D), she told the graduates the workforce is too often “white, male and Yale.” Noting that people of color are almost 40 percent of the nation’s population, Rice said they are less than 20 percent of senior diplomats and less than 15 percent of senior intelligence officials and senior military officers.
“I’m not talking about a human resources issue,” she added. “I’m highlighting a national security imperative.”
Vernon Jordan, a veteran civil rights activist and Washington insider, examined the CIA’s poor diversity record in a blunt 2015 report commissioned by the agency. The CIA went backward in at least one key diversity point during the 2004-2014 period, Jordan wrote in the forward to the 54-page report – the number and percentage of African American senior intelligence officers declined.
Jordan cited a “failure of leadership,” “a general lack of accountability in promoting diversity,” “the absence of an inclusive culture,” and “a deficient recruiting process.”
While racial and ethnic minorities were 23.9 percent of the CIA’s workforce, they were just 10.8 percent of the Senior Intelligence Service.
“The Director must also act promptly and aggressively to identify and promote senior minority intelligence officers to positions that will send an unmistakable message of change,” said the study Jordan led.
Pointed words. But it’s action that counts.
Rice understands that.
The United States, she wrote on the White House blog Wednesday, “must lead the world not by preaching pluralism and tolerance, but by practicing it.”