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CIA forges unity in diversity: everybody hates their ‘woke’ recruitment ad

The Guardian logo The Guardian 4/05/2021 Julian Borger in Washington
Photograph: Dennis Brack/EPA © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Dennis Brack/EPA

In its long and colourful history, US intelligence has come in for a lot of criticism, for engineering coups, drug trafficking and torture, but just over 100 days into the Biden administration it faces a new charge no one saw coming: is the CIA just too woke?

The CIA’s attempt to brush up its image for a new generation drew criticism from left and right but others were supportive. ‘Diversity is an operational advantage,’ said one former officer. © Photograph: Dennis Brack/EPA The CIA’s attempt to brush up its image for a new generation drew criticism from left and right but others were supportive. ‘Diversity is an operational advantage,’ said one former officer.

A social media campaign, Humans of CIA, aimed at boosting diversity at the agency has united critics on the right and left in a moment of shared derision, albeit for different reasons.

Related: CIA file on Russian ESP experiments released – but you knew that, didn't you?

The focus of the uproar is a video about Mija, a Latina intelligence officer, who declares: “I am a cisgender millennial, who has been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.

“I am intersectional, but my existence is not a box-checking exercise,” she says, in the voiceover to a film of her walking confidently through the CIA’s Langley headquarters with a T-shirt emblazoned with a clenched fist motif and her own name.

“I used to struggle with impostor syndrome, but at 36 I refuse to internalize misguided patriarchal ideas of what a woman can or should be,” she adds.

The terminology of wokeness drew a volcanic response on Fox News. One guest, Bryan Dean Wright, a former CIA operations officer turned political strategist, called it “propagandist garbage” and the culmination of what he claimed was a liberal takeover.

“What happens when you hire a bunch of folks who are wokesters going out into the world that is not woke?” he asked. “Is an analyst who is a wokester – are they going to bring nuance to their analysis? … Of course not, They’re activists now.”

The Republican senator Ted Cruz joined in, tweeting: If you’re a Chinese communist, or an Iranian Mullah, or Kim Jong Un … would this scare you?”

“We’ve come a long way from Jason Bourne,” he added, before being swiftly reminded in Twitter replies that Bourne was an entirely fictional amnesiac, and that Donald Trump, who Cruz had steadfastly supported, had openly declared his love for Kim Jong-un.

On the left, the critics accused the agency of appropriating woke language to gloss over an unsavoury history.

“The job for the US & UK intelligence services, and, indeed, for other centers of establishment power, is to transform the Woke wolf into a domesticated Woke dog. I’m betting they succeed,” wrote the author and policy analyst David Rieff.

A CIA spokesperson said the campaign has been going on for some time.

“In 2019 we started our ongoing social media series, ‘Humans of CIA’, for real officers to share their firsthand experiences,” the spokesperson said.

Some veteran spies came to the CIA’s defence, lauding the agency’s efforts at diversity (other videos were about a gay CIA librarian and a blind receptionist), and arguing it would make it more effective.

“Diversity is an operational advantage. Simple as that. I want case officers who look like the UN,” Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior officer, said on Twitter. “[The] Agency needs to push Diversity efforts to win, not to be ‘woke.’ I applaud their efforts, but also note they have a ways to go.”

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