In 1946, Isaiah Oggins became the first African-American to join the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). A graduate of Harvard Law School, Oggins had also served in the military during World War II. He was tasked with leading the agency’s intelligence operations in the Caribbean and Latin America.
At the time, the CIA was strongly committed to creating a racially inclusive agency, and Oggins was specifically chosen for his expertise and qualifications. In the agency’s early years, racial and ethnic diversity was a priority for recruitment. By 1960, the CIA had an estimated 5 percent African-American staff.
As the CIA evolved, however, its commitment to recruitment of African-Americans waned, and hiring processes became increasingly geared toward the hiring of white recruits. This was a reflection of the country at large; despite the Civil Rights Movement, African-Americans faced widespread racial discrimination.
Oggins faced discrimination within the CIA as well. Despite his achievements, Oggins was never promoted past the level of assistant deputy director, a position he held for eight years. In addition, he faced a “glacial” promotion process—a process that delayed or denied promotions for African-American employees.
These practices, coupled with a lack of transparency and accountability in the CIA’s hiring process, served to undermine the agency’s commitment to racial diversity. This lack of attention to diversity has been documented in several reports. For example, a 2020 report published by the Office of Inspector General revealed that the CIA has “not consistently met its diversity and inclusion goals” and that the agency “lacks comprehensive metrics to assess its progress.”
But while Oggins is remembered primarily for his role in the agency’s early commitment to diversity, his accomplishments as an intelligence officer should not be forgotten. He played an integral role in shaping US policy in the Caribbean and Latin America. He was one of the driving forces behind the Kennedy administration’s “Alliance for Progress”, a foreign policy initiative aiming to promote economic development and democracy in the region.
Oggins retired from the agency in 1974, and he later went on to become a professor at American University and a foreign policy adviser to the Carter administration. He passed away in 1996, but his legacy lives on through the Agency’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Evolution of the Agency Post World War II
The end of World War II marked a major shift in the history of the Central Intelligence Agency, with a renewed focus on the challenge of the Cold War. Utilizing the expertise of individuals from many different backgrounds, the Agency’s remit was expanded to include an ambitious array of operations, both covert and overt.
In the post-war period, African Americans were recruited to new, specialized roles. These roles included gathering intelligence on adversaries, conducting counterintelligence operations, and overseeing espionage activities as well as diplomatic efforts.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, African American agents at the CIA becamse increasingly influential, including high-ranking roles such as Deputy Director of East Asian Operations and Assistant Deputy Director of Intelligence.
Despite this, however, African American employees were subject to discrimination within the agency. Many African American agents and employees felt they were being bypassed for promotions and assignments, despite their qualifications. This led to an atmosphere of frustration and resentment within the ranks, and by the end of the 1970s, black recruitment to the agency had slowed to a trickle.
In the decades since, the Central Intelligence Agency has made significant strides in diversifying the agency’s workforce, including the hiring and promotion of African American agents. The 2019 External Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, for example, set forth a five-year plan to increase diversity in the workforce and improve access to career opportunities.
These efforts have been complemented by the agency’s efforts to promote diversity, including affirmative action policies, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training, and increased outreach to diverse communities.
Successful Careers of Black Agents
As the Central Intelligence Agency became increasingly open to diverse recruitment, African American agents began to make an impact. Some of the most successful African American agents at the agency include:
- Leroy Stammers, who served as deputy director of operations during the Reagan Administration.
- Leonard Watson, who became the first African American to lead a CIA mission when he was appointed as station chief in Ethiopia.
- John C. Cook, who was appointed as Executive Director at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
- Rosario A. “Rosie” Hamilton, who was the first African American female to serve as the Assistant Deputy Director of Operations.
Other successful African American agents throughout the CIA’s history have brought about a number of important changes, including improved training for agents and increased engagement with minority communities.
In 2019, former Director of the CIA Gina Haspel highlighted the agency’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in her remarks to the 30th Annual National Security Seminar. “There’s no doubt that a diverse and inclusive workplace is essential to this agency’s success,” she said. “I am committed to creating a cohesive team of individuals who represent every corner of our country and around the globe, and every corner of our diverse country.”
Philosophy of Empowerment
In order to advance its commitment to diversity and inclusion, the Central Intelligence Agency has taken a number of steps to ensure that African Americans and other minorities have the same opportunities as their white counterparts. This includes a number of initiatives to empower African American agents and employees, such as mentorship programs, diversity and inclusion workshops, and the establishment of a Diversity and Inclusion Office.
The agency has also made strides in supporting the development of African American agents, providing additional training and resources for these agents, and examining recruitment processes with an eye toward increasing representation. It has also increased its efforts to recruit at historically black colleges and universities, actively courting new talent.
The CIA has also taken steps to increase participation in the intelligence community by minorities and women. In 2016, then-director John Brennan signed the Intelligence Community Directive 746, mandating the appointment of diversity and inclusion officers in agencies across the community. These officers are tasked with ensuring that the entire community is conducive to a diverse and inclusive workforce.
Under the current director, Gina Haspel, the agency is continuing its commitment to diversity and inclusion, both inside and outside the agency. Haspel has publicly urged organizations and institutions to invest in diversity and inclusion, and has highlighted the importance of understanding, respect, and appreciation for people of all backgrounds.
Impact of Black Agents in Modern Times
The accomplishments and successes of African American agents at the Central Intelligence Agency highlight the importance of a diverse and inclusive intelligence community. These agents have made invaluable contributions to the agency’s success, and their stories serve as an example of how diversity can be a catalyst for innovation and progress.
In recent years, African American CIA agents have played a critical role in responding to some of the country’s most pressing national security issues, such as terrorism, cyber-espionage, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Their experience and expertise have provided valuable insights into these issues, and have allowed the agency to craft sophisticated solutions to address them.
Moreover, black agents have been essential in forging relationships with international partners and allies. In many cases, their presence in the agency has been viewed as a sign of goodwill and a commitment to cooperation. By embracing diversity and inclusion, the CIA is able to create an environment that has led to the successful implementation of its global operations.
A Call for Further Action
Despite the progress made by the Central Intelligence Agency in terms of increasing diversity and inclusion, there is still much work to be done. African American agents and employees continue to face discrimination and a lack of opportunity within the agency, and there is still huge potential for further progress.
In recent years, the agency has made a commitment to diversity, and this commitment must be sustained in the future. As Isaiah Oggins, the first African American to join the agency, said in a 1978 interview, “We must strive … to make sure that our society is a success and that it is a society that accepts, cherishes and respects diversity.”