Edward Snowden opened eyes to the scope of U.S. intelligence efforts. Fusion’s Jorge Ramos recently traveled to CIA headquarters to see the impact on people inside.
One might expect an age divide, given Snowden’s support among his peers. In January, a Pew poll showed that 57 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds said that Snowden’s leaks have served the public interest. But the CIA staffers Ramos interviewed from this generation opposed Snowden’s actions and said they don’t identify with the tech-savvy document leaker.
Kyle, Kendall and Javier spoke on the condition that we hide their real names and identities so as not to affect undercover or other CIA work down the road.
“I think it’s understandable for people to be confused about what the mission of the intelligence community is,” 26-year-old Kyle said when Ramos asked how his views on Snowden differ from young people outside the building. “And it does impact my job on the line, as an analyst. And impairs my ability to work and support policymakers related to threats against national security.”
Kyle works as a terrorism analyst with the National Counterterrorism Center. His colleague Kendall is a terrorism analyst in the Directorate of Intelligence, which provides intelligence to top policymakers, including the President’s Daily Brief. She has been with the CIA for seven years.
“As an Officer, we took oaths to protect and defend the Constitution and protecting classified information is one of them,” she said.
Our interview subjects disagreed on very little. Though passionate, their commitment to secrecy and discipline was clear. Javier was born in Mexico City before immigrating to the United States and joining the CIA at his mom’s suggestion. “She had this idea of how pride—how prideful she would be if one of her sons could be part of something that, nobody knows, it could make a difference in the U.S.”
For his part, Director Brennan said that recruits reject Snowden once they fully understand the harm he did to his country.
Justin Jackson retired in 2012 after 30 years at the CIA. Like Brennan, he’s an intelligence veteran. His views match those of his younger colleagues. “You have to be a person who can be discrete, who can keep information to yourself,” Jackson said about the profile of a CIA recruit. “This is not the life for everybody. But it is the life for a lot of folks who are interested in international relations, and national security, doing something for your country.”
Ramos asked about age as well as other aspects of CIA diversity, which some believe was a crucial weakness in the lead-up to 9/11. “It’s only been a white man” in the director’s office, Ramos said. Kendall pointed to the director’s second-in-command. “I mean, the Deputy Director is a woman,” she said. “And, you know, they say, behind every good man is a woman.”
For years, the agency has attempted to recruit a more diverse group of officers. The Center for Mission Diversity and Inclusion within the agency provides mentoring, coaching, and training for the CIA’s work force. Carmen Middleton is its director.
“Think about how complex the world is,” Middleton told Ramos. “And what diversity of thought gives you is different perspectives, different ways of thinking about things.”
At the CIA headquarters, we spoke with people of varied ages and countries of origin. Their languages, skillsets, and even upbringings were all different. But when it came to the tradeoffs between privacy and security, our interview subjects spoke from a similar place. Kendall, Kyle and Javier also reiterated their commitment to their CIA mission and service to the wider nation. As CIA veteran Jackson made clear, it’s an all-consuming mission.
The younger CIA members also shared Director Brennan’s view that national security threats outweigh concerns about surveillance. “The reality is, is there are groups that want to attack the U.S. either abroad or in our own country and I’m concerned of a certain level of complacency,” Kyle said.
“This is information used to keep America safe,” Kendall said. “So there is nothing good that can come from exposing U.S. secrets.”
These positions certainly diverge from those of young adults as a whole – the age group most skeptical of data collection. They closely guard their privacy and generally believe it’s worth the risk of impeding investigations of potential terrorist attacks. As the CIA looks to evolve, it does so amidst growing concern over intrusion and surveillance by the U.S. intelligence community, demographics aside.