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Officer Harassment in the CIA Threatens the Workplace Environment

CIA Disciplines 15 Officers in Harassment Cases

Last week I read that the CIA had disciplined 15 officers for committing sexual, racial or other types of harassment in 2013. This despite a zero tolerance in harassment cases. The dismissed officers included a supervisor who was removed from the job after engaging in "bullying, hostile behavior," and an operative who was sent home from an overseas post for inappropriately touching female colleagues, said the document, an internal message to the agency's workforce.

In one case, Ilana Sara Greenstein was a CIA case officer working at headquarters a decade ago, she said, a married senior manager who was responsible for her promotions made sexual advances toward her. She spurned him but didn't dare report the incident, she said in an interview, for fear it would end her career. She went on to a stint in Iraq — where a male officer routinely snapped the bra strap of one of her female colleagues, she said — before she left the agency in 2008. Back then, she said, there was no mention of sexual or other harassment in the training she got to be a covert operative.

The examples cited in the message, sent several weeks ago in an email by the director of the agency's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity, were meant to show how the CIA is enforcing its strict policy.

But the announcement also shed light on the spy agency's struggles to move past its free-wheeling workplace culture, especially in the National Clandestine Service, the spying arm, which attracts men and women who are willing to lie, cheat and steal for their country.

In March, CIA Director John Brennan's sent out a workforce message reaffirming the zero-tolerance policy. "Words or actions that harm a colleague and undermine his or her career are more than just unprofessional, painful and wrong — they are illegal and hurt us all," it said. Brennan assured employees that he would not tolerate acts of reprisal against those who complained of harassment.

The agency won't release its employee workplace surveys or details about complaints, on the grounds that such numbers are classified. The CIA takes that position even though the size of its workforce — 21,459 employees in 2013, not counting thousands of contractors — was disclosed in the "black budget" leaked last year by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

"The CIA has no tolerance for harassment of any kind and takes every allegation of such activity extremely seriously," agency spokesman Christopher White said in a statement, according to the AP.

The agency won't release its employee workplace surveys or details about complaints, on the grounds that such numbers are classified, the AP reported.

The message to employees on harassment, which CIA officials said was the first of its kind, said 15 out of 69 complaints in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2013 were found to be true.

In the interest of "transparency," the message said, officials shared summaries of four examples involving three unidentified CIA employees and a contractor:

—A supervisor who engaged in bullying, hostile behavior and retaliatory management techniques was removed from the job, given a letter of reprimand, and ordered to undergo leadership and harassment training.

—A male officer who sexually harassed female colleagues at an overseas post was sent back to the U.S. and given a letter of counseling and mandatory harassment training.

—An employee who used a racial slur and threatened a contractor was given a letter of reprimand.

—A contractor who groped a woman was removed from his tour and "reviewed for possible termination."

Sexual harassment in any form in any organization is aberrant and in the CIA it threatens the relationship of operatives and soldiers and the success of their missions. It cannot be tolerated in any form as the ethical consequences are respect ignored, fairness applied unevenly, and rights abridged of the targets of the harassment. Historically, it appears quite clear that the organizations like the CIA and FBI talk loudly but use a small stick to punish the abusers. In other words their actions do not match the words of the policies banning harassment and the sanctions meted to offenders has been pathetic to say the least. The recent CIA case may be the exception to the rule, and that gives me hope for the future.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 19, 2014. Dr. Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: