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Bad management drives talent from CIA, internal reports suggest

Frustration with poor managers is costing the CIA some of its most talented staff, internal surveys and former officers say.

July 29, 2013|By Ken Dilanian
  • An internal CIA survey indicates frustration with poor management makes it difficult for the spy agency to retain some of its most talented employees.
An internal CIA survey indicates frustration with poor management makes… (Charles Ommanney / Getty…)

WASHINGTON — For the Central Intelligence Agency, he was a catch: an American citizen who had grown up overseas, was fluent in Mandarin and had a master's degree in his field. He was working in Silicon Valley, but after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he wanted to serve his country.

The analyst, who declined to be named to shield his association with the CIA, was hired in 2005 into the agency's Directorate of Intelligence, where he was assigned to dig into Chinese politics. He said he was dismayed to discover that unimpressive managers wielded incredible power and suffered no consequences for mistakes. Departments were run like fiefdoms, he said, and "very nasty internecine battles" were a fixture.

By 2009, he had left the CIA. He now does a similar job for the U.S. military.

CIA officials often assert that while the spy agency's failures are known, its successes are hidden. But the clandestine organization celebrated for finding Osama bin Laden has been viewed by many of its own people as a place beset by bad management, where misjudgments by senior officials go unpunished, according to internal CIA documents and interviews with more than 20 former officers.

Fifty-five percent of respondents to a 2009 agency-wide survey who said they were resigning or thinking about it cited poor management as the main reason, according to a 2010 report on retention by the agency's internal watchdog that mirrored the findings of a 2005 report. Although the CIA's overall rate of employee turnover is unusually low, the report cited "challenges" in the retention of officers with unique and crucial skills, such as field operatives.

The heavily redacted, unclassified report by the CIA's inspector general was turned over to the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau recently, two years after a request was filed under the Freedom of Information Act. Retired CIA officers who talk regularly with former colleagues say little has changed. CIA employees are generally prohibited from speaking to the news media and are grilled during periodic polygraph exams about any contacts with reporters.

"Perceptions of poor management, and a lack of accountability for poor management, comprised five of the top 10 reasons why people leave or consider leaving CIA and were the most frequent topic of concern among those who volunteered comments," the inspector general's report says.

CIA employees complained of "poor first-line supervision, lack of communication about work-related matters and lack of support for prudent risk taking," the report says.

The raw numbers in the survey were blacked out, but CIA human resources officials said in interviews that those who were considering leaving represented about 12% of the respondents. Other internal surveys suggest that most CIA employees have confidence in their managers, the officials asserted — but they declined to release the results.

The officials acknowledged that the inspector general's report identified long-standing concerns about the CIA's culture. In response, they say, they have placed new emphasis on training and evaluating managers. They touted three leadership courses that are required for senior officials as a condition of promotion, all of which were started before the report.

"I really think you would see a different result if the [inspector general] would come back and ask those same questions," said John Pereira, the CIA's chief of corporate learning.

The inspector general's report concluded, however, that "none of these initiatives include a mechanism for improving accountability for poor management."

Seven of 19 reviews of the CIA posted from 2010 to 2012 on Glassdoor, a website that allows employees to review their workplaces anonymously, cite bad management.

CIA officials acknowledged they had not implemented any specific new accountability measures since the July 2010 report, which criticized a lack of progress on that front after a 2005 inspector general's report that also noted a high level of complaints about bad management.

"Since the 2005 report on retention, the agency has taken no significant actions to address management accountability with regard to poor management that may lead to high rates of attrition," the 2010 report says.

Complaints about management are most concentrated in the National Clandestine Service, the CIA's spying and covert action arm, where 71% of employees who had left or were considering leaving cited bad management as a reason. Such complaints are acute among newer employees, "who have exhibited high resignation rates in recent years," the report says.

Although the CIA's overall annual attrition rate is low at 3.5% — compared with a government-wide rate of 6% — that figure masks the premature departure of some of the most creative people who joined after Sept. 11 attacks, former CIA employees say.

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