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.
“After a while you say, ‘You know what? I love my country, but I can serve in other ways,’” said Aki Peritz, who tracked terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi while working as a CIA counter-terrorism analyst in Iraq but left the agency in 2009 and now works at Third Way, a Washington think tank.
“The more adventurous people, the risk takers, tend to throw up their hands and leave,” said a former CIA manager who did not want to call attention to his association with the agency.
“You end up with the C’s, the people willing to hang in and put up with it.”
The toll of such departures is difficult to quantify, but CIA veterans see the consequences in breakdowns such as what happened in 2011 in Lebanon, when CIA informants were arrested in part because of poor tradecraft by agency officers, current and former U.S. officials said.
And they see it in the CIA’s flat-footed response to the Middle East’s political tumult, which led President Obama in 2011 to express his disappointment with the intelligence community. No career has suffered over either failure, U.S. officials say.
In October 2010, three months after the inspector general criticized a lack of management accountability at the CIA, an independent review found “systemic failures” in the operation that allowed an Al Qaeda suicide bomber to kill seven agency personnel and injure six others in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009.
No one was fired or disciplined.
No CIA officer was punished in the case of a German citizen named Khaled Masri, who in 2003 was mistakenly identified as a terrorist, kidnapped by CIA officers in Macedonia and sent to a secret prison for interrogation in Afghanistan, officials say.
“We do fire people here at the agency,” Pereira said, adding that the agency also has demoted, suspended or reprimanded managers. “We can’t give you specific numbers, obviously.”
Some of the CIA’s problems stem from its hidebound bureaucratic structure, said Peritz, who left the agency in part because of dissatisfaction with his supervisors.
“CIA is a 1950s-style top-down organization where you come in at the bottom and move your way up the ranks,” he said. Directors come and go, but “if you look at the people who actually make the decisions, they’ve been there for 25, 30 years. They’ve never actually worked in the private sector.”
Added the former China analyst: “People warned me about the bureaucracy, but when I think of bureaucracy, I think of things taking a long time, forms to be filled out, inefficient processes. What I wasn’t prepared for was the culture. It was the most bizarre place I have ever worked.”
Failing managers are allowed to stay in their jobs too long and given too many chances, said Susan Hasler, who served in the Directorate of Intelligence from 1983 to 2004.
“I used to call them rotating attrition specialists,” she said. “I know one who cleared out two or three branches before they finally determined that he wasn’t management material. In the meantime, he ruined a number of careers.”
Charles “Sam” Faddis, a former case officer in Iraq, wrote a book in 2009 titled “Beyond Repair: The Decline and Fall of the CIA” that skewered the agency’s management.
Faddis recalled a chat with an agency veteran in 2003 who had just spent time training new hires at the Farm, as the Virginia training center is known.
“He was awed by the quality of the recruits,” Faddis said, but he was concerned about “whether we will prove worthy of these people. He said they are going to go to the field and there is a chance they are going to be horribly disillusioned. And I think that has come to pass.”