By blaming me for the discrimination I suffered, the CIA most certainly tolerated racial discrimination and in this woman’s instance, they are tolerating sexual assault/harassment by placing the blame on her.

By Jeffrey Sterling

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In this instance, I am referring to an unapologetic culture of bias and disparate treatment towards minority employees as well as retaliation for bringing it to light at the CIA. The story about a female employee who suffered a sexual assault within the secretive walls of the CIA is not an exception, it is the unfortunate and tolerated rule at the Agency. It was there over twenty years ago in my instance, it remains as vibrant and damaging today.

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As reported by AP, a woman who was in the CIA’s clandestine officer training program was fired not long after she had filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging retaliation against her by the CIA. Last August, a fellow CIA officer trainee was convicted of sexually assaulting her in a stairwell at CIA headquarters in Langley, VA. In the retaliation suit, the woman claims that in response to her taking action against her attacker, she was subjected to harsher performance reviews and that the Agency released personal information about her during the state prosecution. She was fired from CIA less than six months after filing her retaliation suit. Instead of applauding her courage to take a stand against sexual assault, the CIA victimized her all over again by terminating her.

I was in the same covert officer training program as she was. Her ordeal bears similarities to my own at the CIA so much so that there can be no doubt that the culture of bias and disparate treatment directed at minority employees, as well as retaliation against whistleblowers at the Agency, remains.

It is not necessarily inevitable that the wrong skin color or gender will automatically doom one’s career potential at the CIA. Though I can’t say I can recall any, I can at least imagine there were plenty of examples of non-white, non-male officers who have had successful careers at the CIA. I had that same sort of idealistic imagination that allowed me to believe, in earnest, the assurances of equality at the CIA. What is inevitable is that if any employee pushes back against discrimination, bias, or any myriad workplace inequities levied upon minority employees, the CIA will respond. That response won’t be to address the wrongs at the Agency, but to retaliate against anyone who dares to bring them to light.

In my instance, I filed a federal discrimination complaint against the CIA; to my managers, I was too big and black to be effective as a covert officer. The blatant discrimination was only part of the overall disparate treatment I was subject to including the lack of opportunities afforded to me, the impossible career goals demanded of me, the lack of support for me to succeed, and overall disregard for me as a real CIA officer. But, I wasn’t able to fight for my constitutional rights because if there is one thing the CIA is and has been good at, it is protecting its own at all costs.

When I filed my suit, an incredible machine coalesced from many areas including PR, counter-intelligence, legal, EEO, etc. got to work at the CIA and it had one mission, to discredit and destroy me. Shortly after exercising my rights, I received a call from the machine notifying me of how angry they were and that they were contemplating having security pay me a visit. Yes, I had thoughts that a goon squad was on its way to teach me a lesson, but CIA retaliation is more subtle and more damaging than that. I was fired and after many years of trying to put the ordeal behind me, they convinced a court that a black man fighting for his civil rights was a threat to national security, I was wrongfully branded as a traitor and made to pay a terrible price. CIA retaliation knows no bounds.

In the case of the female employee, the CIA retaliation machine has been just as active. Once she courageously went to law enforcement and Congressional committees about the attack, her career was doomed. By standing up to wrongdoing at the CIA and not allowing them to sweep it under the rug of self-protective and inane internal processes, she did what my attorney and friend, the late Edward MacMahon said about me, she “pulled on Superman’s cape.”

The retaliatory actions taken by the CIA from my own experiences and those chronicled in her complaint are proof that nothing has changed at the CIA. Minorities who cannot be a part of that exclusive club will suffer the wrath of the club for standing up against it. I found their comments on her complaint quite telling,

“To be clear, the CIA does not tolerate sexual assault, sexual harassment or whistleblower retaliation,” CIA spokesperson Tammy Thorp told The Associated Press, adding the agency uses “consistent processes to ensure the fair and equal treatment of every officer going through training.”

By blaming me for the discrimination I suffered, the CIA most certainly tolerated racial discrimination and in this woman’s instance, they are tolerating sexual assault/harassment by placing the blame on her shoulders. The only factually true aspect of that statement is the “consistent processes”, but it doesn’t apply to anything other than the CIA retaliation machine. Instead of acknowledging and fixing its problems, the CIA uses the consistent processes of its retaliation machine to further victimize victims of its wrongdoing. It is reported that this woman’s attacker “no longer works for the CIA”, but he was never a target of the machine, no matter his transgressions.

I think it can be argued that there really hasn’t been any change at the Agency in this regard, so of course things will stay the same. This woman is only the latest example. From experience, I don’t think the machine is done with her, she had the nerve to sue the CIA! I think it is safe to speculate that the machine will move to quash her suit as a threat to national security or accuse her of some wrongdoing. Until the CIA is made accountable for its treatment of and retaliation against whistleblowers and minority employees, nothing will change.

Jeffrey Sterling is a Whistleblower Advocate at He is a former CIA case officer who was at the Agency, including the Iran Task Force, for nearly a decade. He filed an employment discrimination suit against the CIA, but the case was dismissed as a threat to national security. He served two and a half years in prison after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act. No incriminating evidence was produced at trial and Sterling continues to profess his innocence. His memoir, “Unwanted Spy: The Persecution of an American Whistleblower,” was published in late 2019.