WASHINGTON — When Ilana Sara Greenstein was a CIA case officer working at headquarters a decade ago, she said, a married senior manager who was responsible for her promotions made sexual advances toward her.
She spurned him but didn’t dare report the incident, she said in an interview, for fear it would end her career. She went on to a stint in Iraq — where a male officer routinely snapped the bra strap of one of her female colleagues, she said — before she left the agency in 2008. Back then, she said, there was no mention of sexual or other harassment in the training she got to be a covert operative.
These days, the CIA says it has a zero tolerance policy toward workplace harassment. And an agency document obtained by The Associated Press said 15 CIA employees were disciplined for committing sexual, racial or other types of harassment last year. That included a supervisor who was removed from the job after engaging in “bullying, hostile behavior,” and an operative who was sent home from an overseas post for inappropriately touching female colleagues, said the document, an internal message to the agency’s workforce.
The examples cited in the message, sent several weeks ago in an email by the director of the agency’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity, were meant to show how the CIA is enforcing its strict policy.
But the announcement also shed light on the spy agency’s struggles to move past its free-wheeling workplace culture, especially in the National Clandestine Service, the spying arm, which attracts men and women who are willing to lie, cheat and steal for their country.
“The CIA has no tolerance for harassment of any kind and takes every allegation of such activity extremely seriously,” agency spokesman Christopher White said in a statement.
In March, CIA Director John Brennan’s sent out a workforce message reaffirming the zero-tolerance policy. “Words or actions that harm a colleague and undermine his or her career are more than just unprofessional, painful and wrong — they are illegal and hurt us all,” it said. Brennan assured employees that he would not tolerate acts of reprisal against those who complained of harassment.
The agency won’t release its employee workplace surveys or details about complaints, on the grounds that such numbers are classified. The CIA takes that position even though the size of its workforce — 21,459 employees in 2013, not counting thousands of contractors — was disclosed in the “black budget” leaked last year by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
The message to employees on harassment, which CIA officials said was the first of its kind, said 15 out of 69 complaints in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2013, were found to be true.
In the interest of “transparency,” the message said, officials shared summaries of four examples involving three unidentified CIA employees and a contractor:
—A supervisor who engaged in bullying, hostile behavior and retaliatory management techniques was removed from the job, given a letter of reprimand, and ordered to undergo leadership and harassment training.
—A male officer who sexually harassed female colleagues at an overseas post was sent back to the U.S. and given a letter of counseling and mandatory harassment training.
—An employee who used a racial slur and threatened a contractor was given a letter of reprimand.
—A contractor who groped a woman was removed from his tour and “reviewed for possible termination.”
In response to the memo, CIA officials acknowledged, many employees complained that none of the government employees involved were fired or demoted.
A senior CIA official familiar with harassment policy, whom agency spokesmen would not allow to be quoted by name, said the idea was to deter the behavior, not end the careers of the offenders. An unspecified number of CIA employees have been fired over the years for harassment, said White, the agency spokesman.
The officials declined to name the disciplined employees or describe their jobs. One recent disciplinary action was not included in the examples, officials said: Jonathan Bank, the CIA’s director of Iran operations, who was removed from his post at headquarters in March after it was found he created a hostile work environment that caused morale to plummet. He is now assigned to the Pentagon.
Many large organizations grapple with workplace harassment, but the CIA faces some unique challenges. For example, the agency, which trains its case officers to manipulate people and lead secret lives, had for years been a place where trysts between managers and subordinates were common, former CIA officials say. And since most of the agency’s business is conducted in secret, there has been almost no public accountability for misconduct by senior officials, as there has been in the military.
In 2010, a senior clandestine service manager was forced to quietly retire after he had an affair with a female subordinate. But that was because her husband complained to Leon E. Panetta, then the CIA director, said two former officials who refused to be named because they could lose their security clearances for discussing internal CIA matters. Other similar workplace relationships resulted in no action, they said.
In 2012, then-CIA director David Petraeus sent a message to agency staff members outlining a new effort to curb sexual harassment in war zones, where CIA men and women often live in close quarters under stressful conditions. Petraeus himself later admitted he was having an affair with his biographer and resigned his post.
The agency has faced complaints of gender bias in the past. In 2007, a group of female officers filed a class-action complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that women who had affairs with foreigners were treated more harshly than their male counterparts. An EEOC judge dismissed the case, however, on the grounds that there were not enough women in the class. The women pursued their cases separately, and some were paid settlements, said former CIA officer Janine Brookner, the lawyer who brought the case.
In 1995, the agency paid $990,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit by 450 women. The settlement included promotions, raises and better assignments for about 100 female officers.
Neither the CIA nor its National Clandestine Service has ever been headed by a woman, but CIA officials point out that women now hold four of the top seven jobs in the agency. Avril D. Haines is deputy director, the No. 2 job; Fran P. Moore is director of intelligence, the agency’s analytical arm; Meroe Park is executive director, the No. 3 job; and Jeannie Tisinger is director for support.
Female analysts also played a key role in the effort to find Osama bin Laden.