The seal of the Central Intelligence Agency is seen on the floor at CIA headquarters, Jan. 21, 2017, in Langley, Va.

The seal of the Central Intelligence Agency is seen on the floor at CIA headquarters, Jan. 21, 2017, in Langley, Va. (Olivier Douliery, pool photo/CNP/Zuma Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — As a boy, Brian used to sell fruit on the streets of his hometown in Trinidad, bringing in extra cash to to help his family pay for food.

Now he works for the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, one of many dual nationals recruited by the U.S. spy agency from Latin America and the Caribbean in its push to diversify its workforce — and to attract talent to its ranks with specific language skills and cultural understandings in hotbeds of turmoil across the globe.

Both Brian and his sister were born and raised in poverty in Trinidad before immigrating to the United States and joining the CIA. The siblings — whose last name could not be shared due to the nature of their roles in the intelligence community — do not work exclusively on Caribbean affairs.

But when a surge of Trinidadians traveled to fight in Iraq and Syria a decade ago, making the island off the coast of Venezuela one of the biggest recruiting grounds for Islamic State, intelligence officers turned to them for their background and expertise. They have been a resource to the agency even when U.S.-born officers need help understanding more mundane cultural phenomena, like how cricket is played.

“That drive to give back is palpable,” Brian said. “If this is something you think you want to do, don’t let the fact that you are from or have lived in another country stop you.”

While the CIA has made diversity a priority for years, intelligence officials say that, since 2021, the agency has promoted the highest percentages of women and minority officers to senior roles in its 75-year history.

“In my first five years at the agency, I don’t remember hearing about diversity,” Brian added. “We’ve come a remarkably long way. And it’s not just the right thing to do — it actually serves the mission.”

CIA Director Bill Burns has placed a focus on attracting more diverse recruits to the agency in recent months, telling Rice University in April that the agency is pushing to demonstrate “that there is a pathway to the top for anyone whose work merits it, whatever their background.”

“When I became director, it took nearly two years to get talent through the door,” Burns said. “We modernized our system and surged hiring personnel.”

The agency has reduced the average time it takes between applying for a role and receiving a final job offer from more than 600 days to less than 180 days, Burns said, and has cut its backlog of applicants from 10,000 to less than 100.

But focusing on dual nationals provides dual benefit to the intelligence agency — “in no small part because of the work we do, but also because we value diversity,” said Robynne, who moved as a child from Jamaica to Orlando, Fla., in the 1980s, before joining the CIA after gaining citizenship.

Robynne, who like Brian would give McClatchy only her first name, joked about the sincere, if not entirely successful effort by the CIA cafeteria to serve jerk chicken, a popular dish in Jamaica.

“Early on you definitely have imposter syndrome,” Robynne said. “I do a lot of engagements and events that allow me to walk across that seal and pass those stars, and it still strikes me that I, a Jamaican-born woman, never in a million years in my childhood thought I would ever work here.” She referred to the CIA seal on the floor and the stars on the wall that memorialize employees who died, at the entrance to the headquarters building in Langley, Va.

“We need all kinds of talent,” she added. “That high work ethic, that desire to give back, is rewarded here.”

Brian’s sister, Mia, who joined the agency several years after him once she obtained citizenship, said that her interest in the CIA began with “a passion for foreign policy and the study of American power coming from the developing world.”

The agency has been accelerating its recruitment drive, working with a range of professional organizations to draw in talent, officials said. This past fall, CIA recruiters attended the 2023 Grace Hopper Celebration and the Out and Equal Conference, both in Orlando, Fla., as well as an engineering career day at the University of Miami, to attract recruits.

CIA recruiters will also attend two large recruiting events in Florida early next year, at the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers Southeast Regional Conference in Gainesville on Jan. 13 and the Florida A&M University 2024 Career and Internship Expo in Tallahassee on Jan. 24.

“I felt as a naturalized citizen that I was starting a career I had only dreamt of,” said Mia, who spent her first five years at the agency working on the Russia portfolio, starting right when Moscow declared its intentions to annex Crimea from Ukraine. “We are public servants. We came here because we love this country, and we are here at the agency because of the mission.”

“Often these are tough experiences — coming from poverty,” she added. “Being the first in your family to go to college. These experiences bring grit and motivation to your work.”

©2023 McClatchy Washington Bureau.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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