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Partisan politics distracts from intel leaders' testimony about seeking inclusive workforce

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Partisan politics distracts from intel leaders' testimony about seeking inclusive workforce
NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone (shown) faced questions from Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who spent a majority of his allocated time questioning Nakasone on the decision to place Michael Ellis, who was installed as the top lawyer at the agency during President Donald Trump's final days in office, on administrative leave. File Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- While House Democrats probed top intelligence officials Wednesday on diversity within the workforce, Republican lawmakers' questioning spanned the political gamut.

"We are simply going to have to retitle what we call our hearings," said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill. "Next time we do this, we title it, diversity and, oh, my god, anything but diversity."

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GOP members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, including ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., sought answers from the directors of the CIA, NSA, Defense Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on anything but diversity in the intelligence community.

Topics ranged from the COVID-19 vaccine mandates to the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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During their prepared remarks, the officials told lawmakers they are committed to focusing on the obstacles to progress. Diversity, they said, provides the United States an advantage that other countries may not have.

"Simply put, we can't be effective, and we are not being true to our nation's ideals, if everyone looks like me, talks like me, or thinks like me," CIA Director William Burns said.

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Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, echoed Burns' remarks, saying that diversity is paramount to mission success, not contradictory.

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Haines also told lawmakers that although some progress has been made on improving diversity within the workforce, leadership in the intelligence community still skews white and male.

According to an annual demographic study by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published in July, the percentage of minorities in the intelligence community's civilian workforce edged higher to 27% from 26.5%, while the percentage of women remained constant at 39.3% during the federal government's 2020 fiscal year.

Despite lawmakers' advocacy for diversifying the intelligence community workforce, their words stood in sharp contrast to the makeup of the committee, which includes only three female lawmakers and is composed almost entirely of White members.

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Nunes, for his part, used his opening remarks to criticize select efforts to bolster diversity and inclusion.

"We can't counter a hypersonic missile launch with better pronoun usage. Understanding of white rage won't rescue Americans stranded," Nunes said. "I'd argue that both sessions are the proper jurisdiction of faculty lounge Marxists, not our national security agencies."

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., pushed back on Nunes' characterization, saying that a failure to attract employees from a range of backgrounds damages the capabilities of the intelligence community.

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"A generation ago, the CIA was mocked for being pale, male, Yale," Himes said. "If we have an insufficiently diverse IC [intelligence community], we are failing to tap the talent of women and African Americans and Latinos and Asian Americans."

He added: "If we fail to tap that talent, we are falling down on our duty to field the most competent, capable team that we can."

Retention obstacles

The intelligence officials agreed, citing retention of diverse talent as a major hurdle to increasing diversity in intelligence leadership.

According to internal data, Haines said, drops in retention are due to a lack of promotion opportunities; lack of fairness and equity in the workplace; insufficient mentoring and guidance; and a lack of identification with a greater organization.

Burns also pointed toward the length of the onboarding process as yet another barrier to entry.

The onboarding process can take as long as 600 days, which puts the CIA at a considerable disadvantage in recruiting the best talent in society just as a general goal, Burns told lawmakers.

"It's a particular disadvantage oftentimes for minority applicants," Burns said. "Many people don't have the means to wait through a lengthy onboarding."

Burns added that the CIA is working to cut the 600-day onboarding process to 180 days.

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But with the topic of the hearing shifting with every lawmaker, the intelligence officials fielded questions only tangentially attached to the issue of inclusion.

Nunes spent the majority of his allocated time questioning NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone on the decision to place Michael Ellis, who was installed as the top lawyer at the agency during President Donald Trump's final days in office, on administrative leave.

Nearly every Republican followed in Nunes' footsteps, prefacing their questioning with remarks about Ellis, whose forced leave drew heavy criticism from Republicans despite a Defense Department Office of Inspector General report declaring the move "appropriate."

To better foster equity and inclusion within the intelligence community, Haines called upon Congress to change policies that hinder the execution of diversity and inclusion programs.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, for example, is prohibited from using resources to assist partners within the community with recruiting. By sharing resources, advocates say, the intelligence community would be able to send recruiters more broadly.

Ensuring that the United States has an intelligence community workforce consisting of people who think differently, see problems differently and overcome challenges differently is a prerequisite to success, Haines told lawmakers.

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"Their creativity makes us smarter, more innovative and more successful," Haines said. "That makes our nation safer and more secure against the array of adversaries and the foreign threats we face."

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