The Realities of Diversity in Spycraft

| Sonya Seunghye Lim
Sonya Seunghye Lim
Former Chief of Station, CIA

Sonya Seunghye Lim is a former Chief of Station with the Central Intelligence Agency. Before retiring from the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, she had a 24-year distinguished career in the Directorate of Operations, to include two assignments as Chief of Station.

OPINION — Increasing diversity has become a priority in US public and private organizations.  “Diversity” now ranks among other perennial buzz words such as “leadership,” “strategy,” and “zero-tolerance.”  During my 24 years in the CIA as a line operations officer and later as a senior field leader, I witnessed how the Agency evolved in its efforts to ensure diversity in the workplace.

The CIA is one of the government’s most adaptable and pragmatic organizations; it tries to practice what it preaches and tries to inculcate a culture of diversity at all levels.  That said, like many other large federal government organizations, the CIA also suffers from an echo-chamber effect of self-validation, which tends to perpetuate theories over experiential data and to favor bumper-sticker affirmations over more substantial narratives.

CIA offers a unique take on organizational considerations of diversity because much of its core mission takes place overseas.  The CIA should endeavor to better prepare its field-deployed officers for onslaughts of cultural biases in countries where political correctness is for the weak and bigotry is often weaponized.  The current training paradigm of ‘one-size-fits-all’ should evolve so it can better equip the diverse CIA field-based cadre to carry out its mission in environments that are vastly different from that of the US.

My experiences are germane to this discussion.  They are both recent and personal:  I retired in the fall of 2020, worked as field operator and senior field manager, and am a female Asian-American.  I learned early on in my career that diversity, political correctness, and cultural sensitivity are rare or absent in many other countries.  Furthermore, in certain foreign environments, a wholly different set of expectations applied to me.  The sooner I acknowledged these seemingly immutable circumstances, the better I was able to mold and exploit them to the benefit of the CIA mission.

Diversity—both extrinsic and intrinsic—is a concept that is seldom practiced or acknowledged in many parts of the world. The CIA, as an external intelligence organization, dispatches its operations officers / collectors globally to conduct clandestine collection operations to protect US national interests and security.  CIA officers posted overseas achieve their objectives largely through human relations—recruiting clandestine sources or building cooperative relationships with liaison partners.  The people with whom CIA officers overseas interact are frequently products of inveterate racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and an assortment of half-baked notions and prejudices.  Before I endeavored to build such relationships, I had to take a requisite step that most of my male colleagues did not—that is, to assert my “American-ness” or “CIA-ness” because my appearance falls outside much of the world’s image of a “CIA” operations officer.

I was at times bemused and other times amused by the ways that host government officials and targets treated me.  In one Asian country, my contact was befuddled by my ethnicity, questioning aloud if I was really ‘American.’  Some of the other comments made by my foreign contacts were, “You are not a real American, right?” “You don’t look like an American,” “You can’t be CIA,” “I need to see your passport before I talk to you,” “We think Americans are either white or black,” etc.

During the early years of the Trump administration, one top foreign counterpart asked derisively, “Since you’re a naturalized US citizen, will Trump take your passport and send you back to South Korea?” After scheduling an introductory meeting with me over the phone, a senior foreign liaison official walked past me at the appointed location because he was looking for a “white or black female.” His surprise was palpable when I approached him and introduced myself.   We had a great laugh together, and luckily this awkward first encounter served as a humorous basis from which we built rapport.

Such experiences overseas were not limited to foreign counterparts.  A white male U.S. Foreign Service Officer (FSO) in one Asian country raised his concerns with one of my colleagues about my security clearances before attending a meeting.  Despite the color of my badge– which denoted Top Secret (TS) clearances– and the context of our meeting, this FSO could not see beyond my race and perhaps my gender.  Another example is that, early in my career when diversity was haphazardly practiced in the DO, a very senior ethnic minority DO female officer discredited my accomplishments based on her perceptions of Asian-female traits.

Institutionally-mandated diversity in practice sometimes hits a bump in the road inside the USG as well.  In the summer of 2020, as I was submitting my paperwork for retirement, the CIA required me to submit my naturalization number and date.  I was flummoxed by this unreasonable requirement for an officer who had served for 24 years with TS clearances.  When I raised the unreasonableness of this double-standard requirement, noting that no US-born CIA retirees were ever required to provide their US birth certificate, I was told only that “it is required to process your retirement.  We will look into it.”  I heard no further.

During my career, as far as I can recall, I never saw any training modules or resources on the additional challenges that non-white or non-black female CIA DO officers should expect to face in foreign countries; on how to work effectively with foreign counterparts who may be sexist or racist or both; on how to build operational relationships with people holding such views. On the other hand, in some countries, I observed diversity in the gender, religion, and ethnic backgrounds of our foreign counterparts and adversaries.  It is no longer the case in which a male CIA officer interacts exclusively with male counterparts. Increasingly, we find multi-faceted combinations of male CIA officers with female counterparts; female CIA officers with female counterparts; female CIA officers with male counterparts.

Thanks to an informal network of trusted colleagues, I managed not only to survive but also thrive, turning these challenges into operational advantages.  Although I encountered obstacles in early relationships, being female gave me some operational advantages.  Bigotry (racism, sexism, etc.) leads one to underestimate the abilities of the other. I was the other.  Bigotry shapes perceptions and altered perceptions can be used to our advantage.  In certain operational circumstances, my racial and gender differences lowered my operational profile and in themselves contributed to success.

With the growing awareness in the CIA that diversity is a strength in terms of both human capital and national security, the CIA should concomitantly diversify its training and mentoring paradigms.  Only a few places in the world share and practice the ideals of diversity and cultural sensitivity as does the US.  Where the CIA often does some of its important work, diversity has little indigenous relevance.

I hope that in my 24 years of CIA service I helped to broaden the views of some of my foreign counterparts and to emphasize that America indeed is diverse and that its strengths lie in recognizing and relying on these very differences.  Later, when I was a chief of Station, I drew on my myriad relevant experiences overseas and strove to provide a working environment in which these thorny issues could be openly discussed and resolved.  Based on the trajectory of change when I retired, I am optimistic that the CIA will continue to evolve in its understanding of diversity, both in theory and in practice.

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The Author is Sonya Seunghye Lim

Sonya Seunghye Lim is a former Chief of Station with the Central Intelligence Agency. Before retiring from the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, she had a 24-year distinguished career in the Directorate of Operations, to include two assignments as Chief of Station. Her overseas postings were in Europe; Asia; and the Middle East. She also served as Chief of Operations at CIA Headquarters. During her service, she developed substantive expertise on geopolitical and transnational issues... Read More

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