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Intelligence leaders defend efforts to promote diversity in face of Republican attacks

<i>Jacquelyn Martin/AP</i><br/>Avril Haines
Jacquelyn Martin
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Avril Haines

By Katie Bo Lillis, CNN

The Biden administration’s most senior intelligence officials defended their push to boost diversity in the ranks of the intelligence community in a congressional hearing on Wednesday, amid attacks from Republicans that such efforts are a distraction from core national security priorities.

Diversity and inclusion “is not only the smart thing to do for an agency with a global mission, it’s the right thing to do for an agency that represents and defends our diverse society,” CIA director Bill Burns told the House Intelligence Committee. “Simply put, we can’t be effective and we’re not being true to our nation’s ideals if everyone looks like me, talks like me and thinks like me.”

Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, said diversity and inclusion efforts — including attempts to boost recruitment and retention — are “essential to our mission and our values.”

Republicans on the committee hammered the efforts and claimed they are politically motivated and detrimental to US security.

“We can’t counter hypersonic missile launch with better pronoun usage, and deeper understanding of Whiterage won’t rescue Americans stranded in Afghanistan,” said Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the committee, an attack echoing much of the culture war rhetoric those on the right have employed in recent elections.

He pointed to “trivial recruitment videos” — an apparent reference to a recent CIA recruitment video promoting diversity within its ranks — and what Nunes said were major intelligence assessments that “show an infatuation with left-wing dogma and politicized actions that have nothing to with deterring our enemies and winning wars.”

“The intelligence community’s mission is to secure information and conduct actions that help deter our enemies and when that cannot be done to help us win wars and other direct conflicts with these enemies,” Nunes said. “The IC, however, seems to be increasingly focused on issues that distract from that mission.”

Rep. Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut, implicitly but unambiguously criticized Nunes’rejection of diversity inclusion efforts as racist.

“Now, maybe you believe that an IC comprised of White males is the result of a perfectly meritocratic system,” Himes said, without mentioning Nunes by name. “Maybe you believe that White males have some racial or ethnic or genetic advantage over others; If you do, there’s a word for that. I don’t believe that we believe that.”

Importance of diversity to core mission

Nunes’ criticism comes despite uniform agreement from intelligence chiefs that a diverse workforce is critical to the intelligence community’s ability to carry out its core mission.

Haines and Burns, plus the senior leaders from the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon’s top intelligence policy office, affirmed the centrality of diversity efforts to their core mission — a viewpoint backed up by multiple former intelligence officials who have discussed diversity efforts with CNN since the start of the Biden administration. Operations officers, in particular, note that minority officers are crucial to undercover work, as they are often able to blend in in environments where White men would stand out.

“This is not political. Not ‘woke,'” tweeted retired operations officer Marc Polymeropoulos. “Rather, diversity is our operational advantage, in the field. On the street. So it is the smart thing to do. So we can win. End of story.”

Himes and other senior Democrats on the committee — as well as the officials testifying — argued that diversity efforts are a practical necessity, as well as the right thing to do.

“I believe that if we have an insufficiently diverse IC, we are failing to tap the talent of women and African Americans and Latinos and Asian Americans, and if we fail to tap that talent, we are falling down on our duty to field the most competent, capable team that we can,” Himes said.

Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, said that while progress has been made, the intelligence community still has work to do. “I remain concerned about inadequate progress in recruiting and retaining individuals of diverse backgrounds in the core IC collection and analysis missions,” he said, noting that he had observed “that the large majority of IC briefers, though uniformly excellent, who appear before the committee are White and male.”

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