Thursday’s Pride and Prejudice event, hosted by The Economist, featured executives, professional athletes, and policy makers, perhaps no more accomplished and high-profile than John Brennan, the Director of the CIA. Brennan dropped in for a one-on-one chat with The Economist’s Tom Standage; though there were no secrets revealed, Brennan touched on why diversity and inclusion is so important for the CIA.
Back in the 1980s—when Brennan first joined the CIA—it wasn’t exactly a place where diversity and inclusion thrived. In fact, identifying as homosexual could lose an agent their security clearance, effectively rendering their status as an agent useless. This was changed in the mid 1990s, and Brennan believes that the CIA has reversed course. “I’d like to think we’re leading the charge in many respects,” he said, noting that it’s important for the CIA to promote diversity because of the agency’s global responsibilities.
“I want to have as inclusive and diverse an environment as possible,” Brennan said. “We were depriving ourselves of having that rich diversity.” According to Brennan, the CIA’s worldwide footprint requires it to be incredibly diverse. The agency needs Americans from all walks to bring their backgrounds and experiences to the agency, he said.
Some may be wondering why Brennan was asked to speak at a conference that was centered mostly around the business case for LGBT inclusion and diversity. But according to Brennan, the CIA’s case is one that many businesses can learn from. If the CIA could promote openness and inclusion, why can’t a corporation? The agency faces a lot of the same challenges as private companies. As the world is becoming more and more connected, the agency, like multinational corporations, is an institution with a global presence. “We need to make sure we’re not insulating ourselves,” Brennan said.
The agency achieves this by “making sure that as you bring someone in, they have the opportunities to grow and develop,” Brennan said. He cited the importance of having a holistic approach, giving everyone a fair shot. But the agency does have organizations that are dedicated to the advancement of LGBT employees.
Why is it that Brennan feels so strongly about the agency’s diversity initiatives? “I’m trying to make up for some lost time,” he said. Brennan spoke about growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s, when there was a lot of hostility towards the LGBT community. Most people like him stayed silent, even if they didn’t have any problem with those in the LGBT community.
Now, he doesn’t want to stay quiet any longer. “I don’t ever want to be in a position of being passive and silent,” he said.