The Need for Improvement

Integrity, Ethics, and the CIA

Kent Pekel

People who have been here for a while cannot believe it when I say that being a case officer is just a job for me...for them, it has been a priesthood or something. There is just a big difference in what motivates us. We are committed to different things.

It seems to me that one of the good things to come out of the Aldrich Ames mess is that now it is more possible to speak out around here when you see something that could mean trouble down the road.

I think we often misdefine failure. If you ran the program correctly and it failed, it is a learning experience, not mismanagement.

The best managers I have had have been the ones who stop to ask, "Is this the right thing to do?" They were willing to be questioned and sought to avoid the arrogance of certainty.

--Four Agency employee

While these diverse voices from across the CIA are addressing different issues from at times divergent perspectives, they are linked by a common concern for the integrity of the organization. This concern speaks both to effectiveness and to ethics, to how capably we achieve our mission and how honorably we go about doing it. The two, of course, are intimately linked; over time, even the most effective organization will be tripped up or eaten away by unethical behavior. At a moment when the Agency is engaged in numerous efforts to improve its effectiveness, ethical issues are also much on people's minds. In a series of conversations with people from throughout the Agency, it was the four broad issues addressed by the speakers quoted above--issues of ideology, dissent, failure, and management--that I heard about most often as challenges to our integrity as an organization, and as critical determinants of our ability to navigate the potential minefield of ethics.

Origins and Overview

This article grew out of my participation in an Office of Training and Education working group charged with looking at how ethics education is conducted at the CIA. At the group's initial meetings, there was agreement among the participants that approaching this subject exclusively from the standpoint of training and education was not enough, that regardless of how good the curriculum and the instructors might be, an organization cannot simply inoculate people with "good ethics" in the classroom and then send them out into an organizational environment that will profoundly shape the way they think and act in doing their work. We agreed with Lynn Sharp Paine, a Harvard Business School professor who specializes in management ethics, who wrote that:

...ethics has everything to do with management. Rarely do the character flaws of a lone actor fully explain corporate misconduct. More typically, unethical business practice involves tacit, if not explicit, cooperation of others and reflects the values, attitudes, beliefs, language, and behavioral patterns that define an organization's operating culture. Ethics, then, is as much an organizational as a personal issue. Managers who fail to provide proper leadership and to institute systems that facilitate ethical conduct share responsibility with those who conceive, execute, and knowingly benefit from corporate misdeeds.(1)

Given our shared conviction that ethics is a much an organizational as a personal issue, the members of our working group decided that an "ethical inventory" of the Agency's operating culture might be useful in our effort to design a new Agency-wide program of ethics education. As we imagined it, the goal of this inventory would be to surface the major ethics-related issues on the minds of people throughout the organization. Such an effort would inevitably be anecdotal, unscientific, and incomplete, but our hope was that it might provoke thought and discussion among ourselves, among senior management, and among the Agency population at large.

This idea became a series of approximately 50 hour-long one-on-one interviews that took place between February and mid-March 1996. The Agency Information Staff selected a rough cross-section of the employee population for me to talk with, and provided invaluable help in setting up the interviews. Without exception, people were willing to engage the issue, and their candor with an outsider--albeit one possessing a blue badge for a one-year assignment to CIA as a White House Fellow--made for fascinating and productive conversations. Although no one requested anonymity, in an effort to facilitate frank and open discussion I informed them that my report would not attribute any statements or opinions to specific individuals. A copy of the questions I loosely followed during the interviews is included at the end of this article.

After the first few sessions, I found that these discussions yielded greater insight when they focused more broadly on integrity than on ethics. This was in part because the word "ethics" often invokes thoughts of compulsory annual briefings in the Agency auditorium, while "integrity" more clearly connotes commitment without coercion to deeply held priorities and values. Integrity also carries the idea that this commitment to values is maintained even when it goes against one's self-interest to do so. In this sense, being ethical implies doing the right thing; having integrity implies doing the right thing even when it hurts. As a result of this project, I have come to believe that alongside an effective program of ethics education, devoting management attention and resources to the task of defining, auditing, and inculcating organizational integrity is the best way the CIA can prepare itself for a future that is likely to be even more ethically challenging than the present.

An important caveat to this point: to call for a focus on integrity is not to suggest that the people of the CIA lack it. If one accepts the premise that ethical or unethical behavior most often reflects an organization's operating culture, then that culture has to be examined continually through the lens of integrity to check for faultlines and tensions that could lead to problems down the road. This approach is preventive medicine for organizations--trying to clarify values and improve systems before the storms hit.

It was this kind of forward-looking approach that left Johnson & Johnson Corporation well prepared to act quickly and with integrity in the 1982 Tylenol tampering case, a crisis that could have put the company out of business. In contrast, a narrow management approach to ethics, one based on trying to weed out the bad apples from the organization while providing a few compulsory ethics training sessions to remind everyone else to be ethical, is shortsighted and destined to fail. As recent history has shown, from the Exxon Valdez to insider trading on Wall Street to Iran-Contra, organizations that fail to monitor and adjust their operating cultures for integrity pay a high price for their mistaken assumption that good ethics "happen" without constant organizational effort.

Many people I interviewed felt that the CIA too has largely taken this passive approach to organizational integrity. While informal conversations about issues of ethics occur frequently throughout the Agency among friends and immediate colleagues, and while some parts of the CIA have developed codes of ethics and have run successful ethics education seminars, in general most of those I spoke with felt that the issue either has not been addressed or has been addressed only within the framework of legal compliance. Some suggested that this has been due to the mission-driven character of the Agency, which has necessitated an intense focus on external events rather than on internal organizational dynamics. Others thought the rigorous selection process that people go through before they join the CIA has generally guaranteed that Agency employees possess strong moral backgrounds, and has thus made a formal focus on integrity unnecessary.

Whatever their perception of the CIA's past attitude toward organizational integrity, most of those I interviewed saw a need to address the issue more explicitly at this moment in the Agency's history. Public tolerance for ethical lapses in all institutions is uniformly low and is likely to remain that way, particularly with regard to an organization charged with conducting espionage in the national interest. In addition, the availability of fewer financial resources with which to fulfill a difficult mission may increase the temptation to cut ethical corners in pursuit of that mission.

Given these constraints, almost everyone I spoke with pointed out the inadequacy of trying to deal with ethics as an issue primarily of legal compliance. While clearly stated rules are important, inherently there can never be enough of them to cover all potential scenarios. And, as Lynn Sharp Paine has written, "Even in the best cases, legal compliance is unlikely to unleash much moral imagination or commitment. The law does not generally seek to inspire human excellence or distinction."(2)

Similarly, the injunction that all ethical dilemmas must be reported up the chain for resolution at senior levels is neither practical nor respectful of the professional competence and "ground truth" knowledge of the people who actually face the problem. Perhaps most important, an ethics strategy founded primarily on legal compliance ignores the fact that what is neither illegal nor against the rules may still be ethically problematic. This is particularly true because, as Rushworth Kidder has written, it is more often the "right versus right" issues--the ones where core values come into conflict--than the "right versus wrong" ones that get organizations and individuals into trouble.(3)

The Elements of Integrity

To avoid approaching the issue from the narrow confines of compliance, organizational integrity replaced ethics as the project's theme. This focus on integrity began with a central question: "What for us as an Agency and as a profession constitutes integrity?" Over the course of those 50 interviews, common themes from across the directorates merged into a working definition of integrity for the CIA, and perhaps by extension for intelligence as a profession. In considering this question, people identified four broad challenges the Agency faces in striving to be an integrity-driven organization.

While each Agency directorate has elements of integrity that are specific to its particular mission--protecting sources and methods in the Directorate of Operations (DO), avoiding politicization in the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), adherence to procurement ethics law in the Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T), and total discretion with sensitive personnel information in the Directorate of Administration--the following eight themes were mentioned repeatedly regardless of directorate or other affiliation:

  1. Belief in and awareness of the moral purpose of the Agency mission.

  2. Always speaking truth to power, both within the Agency and with the policymakers we serve.

  3. Doing our homework-knowing when we have enough information to make a decision and explaining with clarity and honesty what we cannot do or do not know.

  4. Willingness to be held accountable for what we do, write, and say.

  5. Taking calculated risks in obtaining and analyzing information.

  6. Responsible use of the public's money and honor-knowing that we can always answer this question in the affirmative: "If the American people could know all the facts, would a clear majority agree that this is the right thing to do?"

  7. Giving all employees an equal chance to achieve and be rewarded for excellence. Accepting and learning from failure as a means of continually improving who we are.

The Challenges to Integrity

The preceding eight-point definition of organizational integrity for the CIA is, of course, eminently debatable. In fact, having that debate is exactly the point of trying to arrive at a working definition of integrity; it is the best way to surface challenges and obstacles to integrity before they become problems and crises.

In the course of my discussions with people from across the CIA, four such broad challenges emerged: a sense that the Agency's guiding values have become clouded in the aftermath of the Cold War; a belief that within the Agency open discussion and dissent are often discouraged, making it less likely that people will speak out about ethical problems; a concern that an unwillingness to acknowledge failure as an acceptable outcome creates an incentive to cover up honest mistakes and to avoid risk; and a belief that promotions and performance appraisals regularly reward those who acted without integrity.

Cloudy Moral Purpose

Arthur Applbaum, a specialist on professional ethics at the Kennedy School of Government, has written that, "If a claim of professionalism is to have any moral force, it has to refer to ideals and commitments."(4) This is particularly true, he suggests, when a professional role requires a person "to act in ways that, if not for the role, would be wrong." Applbaum cites law, business, politics, journalism, and the military as professions that depend upon "moral force" to legitimize actions that would be societally unacceptable outside the context of their professional roles. The conduct of espionage could certainly be added to Applbaum's list. One senior manager I interviewed underscored the importance of clear guiding principles for the profession of espionage when he told me that, "In this business, you start to get soiled when you want to do the 'dirty' part of espionage rather than feeling that you must do it to achieve noble goals."

During the Cold War, there was universal clarity about the ideals and commitments to which the Agency was dedicated. Awareness of and commitment to shared values were the driving forces behind the CIA's operating culture. As the dust has settled from the fall of Communism, threats to the United States still remain. But for many I interviewed, these new threats lack the obvious moral dimension presented by the expansionist ideology of the Soviet Union, and are thus less compelling motivators for doing a difficult job with integrity. As one case officer told me, "Now the only thing that matters is: Is it good for the United States?"

Also during the Cold War, what was good for the United States was seen to be a matter of principle, while today it is often more clearly seen as an issue of national interest. Many people I interviewed felt that this shift has had significant implications for the intensity with which Agency personnel approach their jobs and also for the caliber of individual who will be attracted to a career in intelligence. Others suggested that this cloudier sense of moral purpose may in the future also have ethical implications. They worried that, if the DO case officers of tomorrow are less clear about the goals to which their profession is dedicated, they will be more likely to become "soiled" by the "dirty" aspects of their craft.

Encouraging Dissent and Accepting Bad News

Computer scientist and management theorist Jay Forrester of MIT once remarked that the hallmark of a great organization is how quickly bad news travels upward.(5) If an organization is to deal with problems effectively, they have to be brought out into the open before they become too serious to manage. For this to happen, employees must know that managers will respond to the bad news itself, rather than shoot the messenger. They also have to know that, although it may not result in management action, all thoughtful dissent will receive a fair and honest hearing. This kind of open environment is particularly crucial if an organization is to surface potential ethical dilemmas, which there is a great incentive to cover up.

The interviews I conducted suggest that the CIA's record on this score has been mixed. In the DO, one career officer told me that, "There has never been a time when I felt I couldn't speak up," while another said that those who do speak up challenge the "most prized value" of the DO--loyalty. They are considered "wave makers" who are "not on the team" or "in revolt." A senior manager who spent his career in the DO related the story of a time when he reported a colleague for unethical conduct with a "floozy" and was criticized by Headquarters for not being "one of the boys."

Most DO officers I interviewed felt that willingness to accept dissent varies greatly from manager to manager. They pointed out that this is a particularly critical quality for a chief of station, who in large part sets the "ethical climate" for that unique environment. Some chiefs have genuine open-door policies and are committed to understanding the concerns of the officers below them, while others, I was told, are interested in "being told what they want to hear." A former case officer now working elsewhere in the Agency suggested that this dynamic exists between Headquarters and stations as well: "A chief of station's overriding goal," he said, "is to get through his watch without a flap. The name of the game is to deal with it within the station or to find a way to avoid telling Washington."

Some DO officers I talked to, particularly younger ones, felt that this lack of willingness to countenance dissent extends even to philosophical discussions of the ethical nature of espionage and the psychological difficulties of the life of a case officer. One related the story of an instructor in a Career Trainee class who refused a student's request to watch a tape of a national news program's interview with a former DO case officer who left the Agency because he came to the conclusion that espionage was immoral. The student had hoped to discuss the issue openly in class and pointed out to the instructor that "everyone was already thinking about these things and talking about them on their own." Despite this, the instructor refused to show the tape, reportedly because he feared that it would raise too many "doubts" in the minds of the new recruits and make them "soft."

Another former case officer told me that the first time in his career he ever engaged in a discussion of the ethical and moral dimensions of espionage with his managers and colleagues was when he was considering leaving the Agency for precisely those reasons. Although he praised his supervisor for ultimately supporting his decision to move to another position within the directorate, he wondered if an earlier discussion of ethical issues might have allowed him to work through his concerns and to continue as a case officer.

Dissent and discussion are the lifeblood of the DI. "Speaking truth to power" depends upon a vigorous effort to find the truth, and high-quality analysis is as much the product of open intellectual discourse as it is of diligent research. While none of the DI employees I interviewed suggested that there has been a conscious attempt to stifle debate within the directorate, a significant number did raise concerns about the unintended effects of the "constant need to please the customer" on the free flow of ideas. Their primary concern on this point was that the current emphasis on producing analysis that speaks with one voice and reflects consensus increasingly leads to "group think" and a watered-down analytic product.

Several analysts I spoke with lamented the "demise of the footnote" as a means of making dissent visible to the customer, thereby increasing his or her options for action or further inquiry. A number of others suggested that the relative absence of dissent in the directorate's analytic products reflects a decrease in dissent within the DI itself. As evidence of this, they pointed to the "drying up" of internal publications devoted to the expression of dissent and to the decreased use of competitive analysis. One young analyst suggested that this is chiefly a result of shortened production timelines. "You always have to fight the idea," he said, "that alternative views slow down the process."

A number of individuals in the DS&T pointed to the same muting of debate and reluctance to receive bad news in their directorate. One such individual, who defined scientific integrity as "a willingness to be challenged and a willingness to grow," felt particularly strongly about the subject. "Scientific integrity is bankrupt at CIA," he told me. "People do not like being challenged and consider a request to see the proof behind an assertion to be aggressive behavior." Another manager from the directorate echoed this concern when she told me that "some people in the S&T avoid challenges by hiding behind the excuse that 'you do not have enough information to challenge me on this.'"

Several DS&T employees suggested that this lack of vigorous debate leads to an overreliance on contractors' judgment in making crucial decisions about support for R&D programs. Another scientist in the directorate said the absence of debate leads to "a cultural arrogance that builds what is technologically neat but does not focus on customer needs."

Misdefining Failure and the Fear of Taking Risks

The CIA has long had a "can-do" approach to its mission, characterized in particular by a refusal to accept failure as an end result even in the most difficult of situations. Every employee I interviewed was justifiably proud of this tradition. A significant number of them, however, also suggested that this unwillingness to tolerate failure has a negative side as well. They argued that when people fear they will be blamed for anything short of an optimal outcome, pressure is created to do whatever it takes to achieve that outcome, including cutting ethical corners and covering up mistakes. By contrast, if it is understood and accepted that failure often results not from dereliction of duty or lack of effort, there is less chance that people will feel the need to compromise their integrity when things go badly. In this sense, they argued, failure should be seen as part of the normal cost of doing business. One senior DI manager put it this way: "If you have not been wrong lately, you are not doing your job."

The people who made this point were quick to note, however, that accepting failure does not mean there should be no accountability for negative results. They insisted that ethical lapses and poor performance must have very real consequences. But they believed that failure should be regarded primarily as an opportunity for learning and growth, rather than as cause for punishment and permanent stigmatization. Thus, even though failure must have consequences, it must finally be followed by forgiveness. In other words, it must be understood that, as management guru Peter Senge puts it, "Screwups will not always be hanging over the offender's head."(6) Many I interviewed pointed to fear of just such stigmatizing screwups as the force behind what they described as the "risk averse" environment that exists across the Agency today.

From people in the DI, I heard of a "tyranny of reputation," in which "a bad call can stay with you for three years," greatly influencing future work assignments and opportunities for advancement. Others suggested that at times potentially valuable lines of analysis do not reach policymakers because "today there is little willingness to dare to be wrong." They saw the same force behind changes in the language used in intelligence products, pointing to the increased reliance on what they describe as "fudge words" that allow analysts to hedge their bets in place of more direct phrases like "in our judgment" and "we believe."

In the DO, disciplinary actions recently taken by senior management regarding operations in Guatemala in the 1980s have clearly sent powerful but conflicting messages about what constitutes failure in the world of operations. Some saw the management decisions in the Guatemala case as an instance of people "finally being held appropriately accountable for horribly bad tradecraft." Many others, however, felt that the overriding lesson of the Guatemala episode is that "accountability is a codeword for political expediency"--that whatever displeases senior management can be deemed a failure and cause for disciplinary action. Many on both sides of the divide agreed that amidst this confusion about the real nature of accountability, as one manager put it, "Nobody is taking risks out there."

In the DS&T, I heard from several individuals that managers often seek a "guarantee of success" before committing resources to a project. The cost of this tendency, they argued, is that many of the most difficult projects with potentially the greatest payoffs do not receive serious consideration.

Promotion and Performance Appraisal

Almost without exception, the people I interviewed--including senior managers--agreed that it is in the area of promotion and performance appraisal that management most "walks the talk" on ethics and integrity. Are people actually rewarded for integrity, or chiefly for effectiveness more narrowly defined, such as the ability to get a job done quickly and without flaps? The best managers do both, and I heard numerous stories of such people at the CIA.

But many I interviewed also described a long tradition at the Agency of promoting people who have demonstrated effectiveness at the expense of integrity. Most suggested that this was because the system did not ask or encourage them to do otherwise. As one manager in the DS&T told me, "A manager's old role was to spend money fast. Getting the system done on cost and on schedule was everything. This is what you were rewarded for, and management ignored the piles of bodies left from someone's rise."

In the DO, I frequently heard about the legacy of the "numbers game" that led to "case officering other case officers" and "running ops" against each other because people had no incentive to work together against a target. Others shared stories of "management by intimidation" and "treating our employees like assets." This management style did not inspire much devotion or sincere commitment from those subjected to it. "We need people you want to follow out of the trench," a young DO officer told me. "A lot of the people I have worked for we wanted to throw out of the trench."

A significant number of those I spoke with suggested that, despite current efforts to improve the quality of Agency management, integrity and ethical behavior continue to receive too little emphasis in determining who will be promoted. One of the people I interviewed expressed this view more strongly than others: "People today are getting promoted who have done things I would never do," she said, "and everybody knows it."

When I raised this issue with senior managers, they acknowledged that it has been a problem, but pointed out that in making promotion decisions managers often have more information about an individual than the rest of the work force. This allows them to look broadly at that individual's entire career, rather than "extrapolating from possibly isolated ethical lapses to decide that the person is fundamentally corrupt."

While this may be the case, to a certain extent perception is what matters here, as employees take their cues about what behavior is rewarded in the organization from their reading of how top managers got where they are. Given this, managers should understand that they cannot "start over" with integrity once they become managers; to a great extent, the most powerful message has already been sent.

Senior management may at times underestimate the symbolic power of promotion decisions, and several of those I interviewed recommended that an effort be made to measure the "hallway reputations" of people in order to make issues of integrity a larger factor in promotion decisions. Others, however, pointed out the difficulty of accurately measuring something so intangible. In both cases, people agreed on the need for management to send clear signals on the issue. "If people are going to be promoted based on integrity," one man argued, "you have got to tell them about it, and then you have to really do it."

Many I interviewed also spoke of a related failure to enforce adequate consequences for conduct lacking in integrity. They referred to a tradition of avoiding the task of holding people accountable for even the most egregious breaches of integrity, of "passing the trash," rather than forcing a change in behavior or separation from the organization. They pointed out that often there were good intentions behind this tradition: the Agency sought to protect its own and also had to weigh the troubling security implications of firing a disgruntled employee. Despite these good intentions, however, when managers failed to take action in such cases the wrong message was sent to employees about the organization's real commitment to integrity.

Many of those I interviewed cited this tradition as a welcome casualty of the Aldrich Ames affair, as well as of an era in which tighter budgets do not allow for keeping nonperformers on the payroll. Thus, while I did find widespread concern that integrity and ethical decisionmaking are not yet adequately rewarded at the CIA, I also found a general consensus that their absence is less tolerated than in the past.

A Program of Ethics Education

This inquiry began with the assertion that an organization should not think of ethics uniquely or even primarily as a problem of training and education. Broadening the issue from ethics to integrity leads to a more productive focus on the institutional structures and management practices that create ethical dilemmas or impede their efficient resolution. Without attention to the challenges to integrity presented by these structures and practices, even the best ethics program is destined to become irrelevant within the larger life of the organization.

That said, a quality program of ethics education is an essential element of an overall strategy for organizational integrity. Some of the lessons learned in the course of this project might serve to inform the development of such a program. In conclusion, I offer a few preliminary suggestions:

Ethics Interview Format

  1. Please agree or disagree with this statement by a career CIA officer: "Espionage is essentially amoral." How do you think about the ethical implications of your job?

  2. What inputs shape your own sense of ethics and morality?

  3. What are some examples of ethical dilemmas that you or your colleagues have faced?

  4. To what degree do the Agency's standards and policies give you practical guidance on the ethical issues you face in the course of your work? Which specific policies would you be likely to look to for such guidance?

  5. When confronted with an issue that has ethical implications, what decisionmaking process do you go through to reach a decision?

  6. In what ways does the structure of this organization reward or hinder ethical decisionmaking?

  7. In your experience, is raising ethical concerns or objections with supervisors about Agency policies or programs encouraged or discouraged?

  8. Is making ethically sound decisions a factor in determining who is promoted and who receives performance awards?

  9. How are we as an organization and as individual employees held accountable for ethical behavior? What could be done to improve such accountability?

  10. What degree of importance would you say senior management places on ethics and integrity? What leads you to this conclusion?

  11. Have we become more or less "ethical" as an organization during the time you have been with the Agency? If you have noticed a difference, what do you think has driven this change?

  12. What, if anything, would you like to see done to improve or reinforce the ethical climate in the Agency today?

Kent Pekel wrote this article while serving as a White House Fellow. He is currently a Special Adviser to the Deputy Secretary of State.


  1. Lynn Sharp Paine, "Managing for Organizational Integrity," Harvard Business Review, March-April 1994,p. 106.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Rushworth Kidder, How Good People Make Tough Choices (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1995).

  4. Arthur Applbaum, "Professional Detachment: The Executioner of Paris," Harvard Law Review, 109, No. 2 (1995), pp. 474-486.

  5. Quoted in Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday/Currency, 1990), p. 226

  6. Ibid., p. 300