One Less Secret
How the CIA Came Out of the Closet
For decades, gay and lesbian intelligence officers had to keep their sexuality a secret. Then came a remarkable shift.
Tracey Ballard applied to join the Central Intelligence Agency in 1985. The last step in her months-long vetting was a polygraph exam. Ballard knew that she might be asked about her sexuality. And if she answered truthfully, she thought she probably wouldn’t get the job.
To be openly gay or lesbian, according to the twisted official logic of that bygone but not-distant era, was presumed to be so shameful that intelligence agency employees would do anything to keep their dark secret, including handing over classified information to a foreign adversary who threatened blackmail. Never mind that being open about one’s sexuality or gender identity would take away the very leverage that a Chinese or Russian agent might try to use. As a matter of policy, the federal government could deny or revoke a security clearance, and thus access to classified information, based on someone’s sexual orientation. And someone who lacks a clearance is effectively unemployable, at the CIA or in any other sensitive job in the government or the private sector, for which it’s almost always a basic requirement.
Ballard knew she was at risk. But her polygrapher posed the question in an unexpected way. “Do you have a problem with homosexuality?” he asked. Well, that was easy. No, she replied. Ballard passed the exam, confident that she’d given a completely truthful answer.
Two years later, it was time for Ballard to renew her clearance—and again face a polygrapher. Ballard was worried the examiner this time might ask the question a different way. Now Ballard was living with her female partner and raising a daughter. Her partner was on active duty in the military. If Ballard were asked, “Are you in a relationship with a woman?” and she answered yes, the CIA might want to speak to her partner. And if she was outed at work, she could be dishonorably discharged.
Both women now faced a potentially career-ending decision. “There was a lot of anxiety in our relationship around it,” Ballard recalled in a recent interview. Her partner asked, “‘What are you going to do?”
On the morning of the polygraph, Ballard stopped her inquisitor before he asked the first question. She told him about her partner, about their life together. “I had made the decision that morning that my integrity was too important.” She took the exam, and then three weeks later something unexpected happened.
Ballard didn’t lose her clearance. Instead, she was asked to sit down with a panel of officers—all men—assigned to surface the intimate details of Ballard’s relationship and assess whether her sexuality made her a risk to national security.
“They asked a lot of questions. Inappropriate questions,” Ballard said. “They were trying to make sure I was truthful enough to be employed.” Which, considering Ballard had just risked her family’s livelihood by telling the truth, was a test she had obviously passed.
Ballard’s questioners seemed to be clinging to outdated notions of loyalty and patriotism, reminiscent of the “lavender scare” of the 1950s that had Sen. Joseph McCarthy hunting down “sex perverts” in every corner of the national security apparatus. “Homosexuals must not be handling top secret material,” McCarthy declared. Gay men in particular were seen as vulnerable to blackmail, and prime targets for Soviet spy recruiters. Homosexuality, therefore, was both a moral offense and a gateway to treason.
Historian David K. Johnson has observed that much of McCarthy’s political influence at the time came not from his rampage against suspected communists in the government—for which he is most remembered—but from persecuting gays and lesbians, some of whom were driven to suicide.
McCarthy’s mixture of morality and national security infused official policy. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order directing federal agenices to investgiate employees who might pose security risks. “Sexual perversion,” code for homosexuality, was considered a fireable offense. An estimated 10,000 gay men and women lost their jobs. Protests by a few civil servants willing to demand the policy be repealed sparked the gay civil rights movement.
The scare was a witch hunt, and the embers were still smoldering 30 years later when Ballard was trying to renew her security clearance.
“We just didn’t have a culture of trust,” Ballard said.
The grueling Q&A wasn’t the end of it. The CIA went back and investigated all Ballard’s answers and verified she was telling the truth. But then, a year later, the agency rendered its verdict: She could keep her security clearance. And it couldn’t be taken away again on the basis of her sexuality. It was a decision that may have been unprecedented in the history of the CIA.
Suddenly, Ballard had nothing to hide. At least not from her managers. “I felt I was in a unique position,” she said. “I was cleared.” She might get fired if she screwed up on the job. But she couldn’t get the axe for being partnered with a woman.
Ballard started watching for other signs that the winds might be shifting. In an internal CIA communication in 1994, Ballard spotted what she described as a “very brief notice” that said the agency didn’t take a position on whether to deny someone a security clearance on the basis of sexual orientation.
It wasn’t a wholesale shift in policy. “But you could see something,” she said. “A thawing.” Ballard started speaking up when she heard co-workers bad-mouthing gays and lesbians. “I’d say, ‘Why are you disparaging these people like that when we have a need for their skills?’”
It was a fair question. But it had taken her years to summon the nerve to ask. “I had built up my armor,” Ballard said. “I was just not going to take it anymore.”
She wouldn’t have to for much longer. In August 1995, President Bill Clinton issued a new executive order, effectively reversing Eisenhower’s policy. “No inference concerning the standards” for employment, it said, “may be raised solely on the basis of the sexual orientation of the employee.” A security clearance couldn’t be denied, or revoked, on those grounds.
The immunity that Ballard had been given after running the gauntlet was now a protection that applied to every employee.
“To me, that was the golden grail right there,” she said, smiling at the memory of when she first heard the news.
August 2, 2015, marks the 20th anniversary of Clinton’s order. It was a significant and largely overlooked milestone in the fight for civil rights in the workplace, one that profoundly changed the lives and careers of intelligence agency employees who could now be out at work without fear of losing their jobs.
But it took another decade before those people truly believed they were safe and welcome, several said during recent interviews. Discrimination against gays and lesbians didn’t suddenly cease. Just in the past week, an openly gay CIA contractor alleged he was verbally abused and felt physically threatened on the job. The official embrace of LGBT employees not for their differences, but for their potential contributions, has only begun.
John Brennan, the current CIA director, is playing a central role in that effort, informed by his own experience working at the agency as a career officer, before and after the order was signed.
Brennan may be the best straight ally the agency’s LGBT community has ever had. On the occasions when he wears a lanyard—the necklace with dangling fobs and ID cards that are practically part the wardrobe for most federal employees—it’s often one emblazoned with a rainbow patch and the logo for ANGLE, the Agency Network of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Employees and Allies. On July 10, Brennan praised Ballard for her role in co-founding the group and serving as a role model for other employees during an all-hands meeting about the CIA’s efforts to create a more diverse workforce. (Ballard was the first employee he called out for special attention in the speech.) And in June, when the Supreme Court ruled there’s a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, Brennan sent an email to a listserv of LGBT employees telling them how pleased he was with the Court’s decision.
During interviews in recent weeks, current and former CIA officers have given Brennan credit for his commitment to recruiting and retaining more LGBT employees. “It’s not lip service,” said an openly gay analyst named Charles, who, owing to the sensitive nature of his job, asked not to be identified by his last name. (He may be out at work, but he still works with spies.)
Brennan told The Daily Beast that in light of the panoply of threats that the United States faces around the world, the last thing the CIA needs to do is cut itself off from people of varied backgrounds and perspectives.
“Diversity of thought, ethnicities, backgrounds, and experiences is essential to CIA’s success and we need it at every level of the enterprise,” Brennan said in a written statement. “It is our duty to harness the richness of all our employees and to ensure each of them is valued. Given our global mission, no government agency stands to benefit more from diversity and inclusion than does CIA.”
It’s an ambitious idea that, by many accounts, the CIA has succeeded in weaving into policies and culture. Four years ago, the agency began a new outreach program aimed at recruiting, among others, LGBT employees.
But this expansive mentality, while applauded by the workforce, has also been tested.
On Wednesday, former Navy SEAL Brett Jones, who is openly gay and a CIA contractor, went public with a harrowing tale of on-the-job discrimination in the battlefields of Afghanistan. While working in June for the CIA’s Global Response Staff, which recruits former special operations forces to help protect agency personnel in the field, Jones says he was called a “faggot” by his co-workers, joked about behind his back, and was once left stranded away from his base, in 120-degree heat, without water.
The taunts became hostile, Jones said in an interview with The Daily Beast, when he saw himself referred to as “Gay Gay” in a PowerPoint briefing on a dangerous mission he and others were about to take. Jones worried his life was being threatened.
“Everyone is armed. Everyone is stressed out. And I couldn’t trust anybody,” he said.
“I had no idea who was in on this. I had no idea how far up it went. And I knew that if I spoke up, it could potentially end up causing me some sort of harm.”
Jones said he contacted a CIA official back in the United States, telling him, “I’m not safe, and I need to go home.” Jones returned to the United States on July 8.
Owing to personnel and secrecy rules, the CIA wouldn’t comment on Jones’s case or confirm that he works for the Global Response Staff. But in Brennan’s statement, which he gave after Jones’s story was reported by the San Diego Union Tribune, the CIA director spoke about the unfinished business of bringing LGBT employees and contractors into the fold, even 20 years after the executive order on security clearances meant Jones could come to work without hiding who he is.
“We’ve made substantial progress enhancing LGBT diversity and inclusion efforts at CIA, but we still have work to do,” Brennan said. “To ensure that LGBT officers are welcome and included at CIA, it is incumbent on me and every other CIA leader to demonstrate our commitment to them not only through words, but also through clear and sustained actions.”
Clinton’s executive order was just words, too. And while at the time Ballard and her colleagues had cause for celebration, gay and lesbian activists outside the CIA saw the order’s passage as an underwhelming victory.
“Lifting that ban on the ability to get security clearances removed a kind of lavender ceiling in places like the FBI and the CIA, and even among defense contractors, so LGBT people could advance much further than they could before,” said Elizabeth Birch, who was then executive director of the Human Rights Campaign.
But advocates were hoping for more. Clinton had come into office promising to lift the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military—an idea that backfired spectacularly when it was opposed by military leaders, members of Congress, and large segments of the public. Proponents of lifting the ban hoped it would be a new chapter in the history of the civil rights movement, akin to Harry Truman desegregating the armed forces in 1948. And they thought that Clinton’s election would herald a new era for workplace anti-discrimination laws.
“President Clinton felt like a guy riding over a hill on a horse with the clouds parting and the sun shining through,” Birch said. “But all we ended up getting was this [executive order]. And it felt like very little in the context of the greater need. And it’s unfortunate because it was a very important step.”
At the CIA, the order was also treated cautiously. Ballard and her colleagues knew that a future administration could rescind Clinton’s order. And the agency could, technically, choose not to follow it. Owing to its national security mission, the CIA is considered an “excepted service,” meaning that it doesn’t have to adhere to the same employment rules and regulations that govern hiring and firing most federal employees. The agency could still pull security clearances or refuse to grant them to homosexuals.
Indeed, the courts had given the intelligence community permission to do just that. In one of the most pivotal cases for gay and lesbian workplace rights, a group of employees at technology companies under contract to the Pentagon sued the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office, which had been denying security clearances to homosexuals for years. (The case is as memorable for the outcome as it is for its name—High Tech Gays vs. DISCO.)
In 1990, a U.S. appeals court ruled that the Defense Department’s discrimination was permissible because “counterintelligence agencies target homosexuals.” That conclusion was based on “evidence,” supplied by the department itself, that sexuality was one of several “human weaknesses, indiscretions and vices,” along with alcohol and drug abuse and financial problems, that foreign governments had consistently sought to exploit.
The court further added that “special deference must be given… to the executive branch when adjudicating matters involving their decisions on protecting classified information.”
With Clinton’s order, the executive branch had spoken—against discrimination. Yet few gays and lesbians stepped out of the closet in its wake.
Ballard co-founded ANGLE in 1996, but CIA employees didn’t flock to the first meetings. “The hardest part,” she said, “was getting individuals who were already in the organization to come out.”
George Tenet, who became CIA director that year, recalled that convincing employees that the agency really did value openness and difference was as much about grooming the next generation of leaders as competing for talent with the private sector.
“Diversity was a huge leadership priority for us in our time,” Tenet told The Daily Beast. “The context was developing all of our people irrespective of race, creed or sexual orientation to their fullest potential and to ensure CIA was seen as a leader in both the public and private sectors in this regard.”
Heading into the late 1990s, the CIA was losing seasoned managers to retirement and not attracting new talent in as large numbers as previous years. The Cold War was over. Budget cuts meant less hiring and scaling back operations. Tech companies were on the rise and attracting talent with salaries that the government could never pay.
Then the 9/11 attacks led to a surge in applications—more than 150,000 in the days following the attacks, compared to the tens of thousands the agency typically received each year. A hiring bonanza was on, across the intelligence community, for translators, terrorism analysts, operatives, and technology specialists. The new recruits were overwhelmingly young, drawn from a generation that had few, if any, of the hangups about sexual orientation as their predecessors.
By 2007, those post-9/11 recruits made up an astonishing 35 percent of the total workforce of all intelligence agencies. The veterans were moving closer to retirement every day. The young were taking over.
Bill, an openly gay senior officer who joined the CIA in 1985 (and who asked not to be identified by his last name), said that in the early 2000s new recruits were already out of the closet. “That was amazing,” said Bill, who didn’t acknowledge to himself that he was gay until a decade after he joined the agency.
Charles, the analyst, joined in 2004, was unsure how the CIA would react to his being openly gay.
“I’d been walking around with it for weeks, worried that it would keep me from working here,” Charles said, noting that he’d only come out a few years earlier, after graduating college.
Like Ballard, he told his polygrapher that he was gay before the interview even began. “Oh, that’s not something we care about,” Charles said the examiner replied. “Tell me about any drug use.”
Longtime CIA officers say this period of rapid change mirrored a broader, societal shift. But it’s hard to imagine that the intelligence agencies would have changed so fast absent that surge of young employees after the 9/11 attacks. Now those men and women are heading into the ranks of middle-management, on their way to one day running the intelligence community. And they’re barely aware that there was a time when they could have been drummed out of their profession because of whom they loved.
“They don’t know any different,” Bill said.
By the late 2000s, more than just culture was changing. Charles recalled meeting with CIA Director Leon Panetta about what steps he could take under his own authority to advance LGBT workplace rights and benefits. Panetta, who ran the agency from 2009 to 2011, and was Clinton’s chief of staff when the president signed the executive order, turned to his assistant and asked if he could define the term “spouse” to include partners of the same sex, so that they could receive the benefits afforded to opposite-sex couples. Panetta did.
LGBT employees also obtained the same kinds of “household” benefits that the State Department offers employees living abroad, and persuaded the CIA to pay for relocation costs and give housing allowances to same-sex couples.
The new wave didn’t just wash over the CIA. Today, Charles heads a group called IC Pride that has two representatives from nearly every one of the 17 intelligence agencies. In 2012, the group held its first “summit” at a CIA conference center. In 2013, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which made the detailed scale model used to plan the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, played host. The National Security Agency followed in 2014. And the National Reconnaissance Office—the keeper of the most powerful spy satellites and probably the most secretive intelligence agency of all—was the 2015 host.
In 2016, the summit will be hosted by Defense Intelligence Agency, which has historically been slow to embrace LGBT employees, many said, but has seemed to turn a corner this year. Following a prominent Pride display in the agency’s lobby in June, one employee came out as transgender, Charles said. The agency’s Pride month speaker was Eric Fanning, who was then chief of staff to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. Fanning, who is also the highest-ranking openly gay member of the Defense Department, is the leading contender to become the next Secretary of the Army. He would be the first openly gay person to serve in that position.
The IC Pride group has let employees of different agencies get an insight into each other’s cultures—a kind of cross-pollination that the 9/11 Commission, which investigated the terrorist attacks, said was lacking and had to be developed if the spy agencies were going to effectively combat global threats. Along the way, Charles said, he’s learned some surprising things, including that more employees have identified as transgender at the NSA and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency than anywhere else in the intelligence community. He’s not sure why, but those agencies took the lead in building what Charles called a “rapid deployment cell” that visits other agencies where transgender employees are coming out to help smooth their transition and provide information on the process to anyone who wants it.
Today, straight CIA officers show up at ANGLE meetings, Charles said. One senior official has become the group’s chief booster among top managers. She signs her emails as ANGLE’s “senior champion.”
James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, was the keynote speaker at the Pride summit in 2014, held at NSA. His speech has been remembered as a kind of confessional, both for Clapper personally and the ranks of intelligence leaders who presided over a community that regarded its own employees as potential spies and turncoats.
Echoing a common refrain, Clapper said that embracing LGBT employees is “not just about what’s right. It’s about good business in our profession.” He recalled his own experience as a young Air Force lieutenant processing the dishonorable discharges of two male Russian-linguists who had been outed as gay. “I remember thinking what a waste of talent it was to do this, in addition to being a profound injustice,” Clapper said.
Twenty-five years later, as the Chief of Air Force Intelligence, Clapper restored the clearance of a civilian employee, after it was revoked on the grounds of sexual orientation.
“This set a precedent in the Air Force, and I took some flak for it from some of my Air Staff general officer colleagues,” he said. “But it was the right thing to do—for that person, and for our country. And although I didn’t admit it to myself at the time, maybe I was also trying to atone for what happened to those two airman Russian linguists, all those many years before.”
There is a repentant quality to the intelligence community’s LGBT history. It’s why Brennan wearing a rainbow on his lanyard or sending an email to a private listserv are as important signals of his commitment as his public pronouncements about diversity. To be believed, he has to walk the talk.
In the days ahead, Brennan’s commitment will be questioned. Jones, the ex-SEAL and CIA contractor, said he has filed a complaint and that the agency is investigating. After Jones’s story appeared, a CIA spokesman, without commenting on the case, said the agency follows “a Zero Tolerance Policy” against harassment and discrimination, and that “CIA leadership is committed to holding all employees accountable for living and promoting this policy.”
In his statement to The Daily Beast, Brennan said, “As Americans, vocal and active support for the rights and aspirations of members of the LGBT community, including here at the CIA, is the right thing to do.”
One indication of how well the agency is living up to those words comes from Jones himself. Remarkably, he holds no ill will towards the agency and the employees he has worked with over the years, despite fearing for his life when he was on the job.
“They’ve been absolutely 100 percent awesome and supportive,” said Jones, who published a memoir in 2014, which the CIA vetted to ensure it didn’t reveal any classified information. Jones said he had recently traveled to Washington and met a transgender person who works at the CIA. “It made me so incredibly happy that an organization would be that supportive of something that’s still kind of taboo,” he said.
Last Saturday, July 25, about 60 CIA employees, their families, and allies got together for an annual crab feast at Ballard’s house in Northern Virginia. It was their sixth such gathering. The party has become a social highpoint for the agency’s LGBT employees. It’s a chance to mingle outside the confines of their secretive office.
But it’s also a ritual. Cracking crabs is messy work, usually done at a communal table. As the feast progresses, people’s hands get covered in a mix of crab juice and Old Bay seasoning. As group eating experiences go, it’s one of the most humbling, and a great way to force people to talk and get to know each other.
The crab feast is open to all. ANGLE’s “senior champion” has brought her family. Straight allies regularly attend. And everyone who comes knows the journey it took to get here. The discrimination. The fear. The years of hiding. That’s why, at the latest feast, a surprise guest set off a flurry of excited whispers.
Is that him? Is he here?
He’d come in the side door, avoiding a grand entrance. Only Ballard and a few others knew he might show up. As people looked up from their crab, they saw him moving into the crowd, extending a hand as he introduced himself and his wife.
“Hi, I’m John,” the CIA director said.