Scholars and spies: A disastrous combination

The academic community needs to create a clear firewall between itself and the military and intelligence communities.

The CIA's relationship with academia has gone much deeper than merely sponsoring research [Reuters]

Buried in a just published Washington Post exposé on the expansion of spying operations by the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) is a sentence that should send shivers down the spine of any researcher, journalist, student or scholar working in the Muslim world, regardless of whether she or he is an American citizen:

“Having DIA operatives pose as academics or business executives requires painstaking work to create those false identities, and it means they won’t be protected by diplomatic immunity if caught.”

I’m glad to know it takes “painstaking work” to create the “false” identity of a scholar (it’s most likely not as hard to fake being a businessman, given the CIA’s long history of using front companies for its espionage activities). But I have little doubt that the US intelligence and defence communities would do so if they believed such a cover could help better collect and/or produce actionable intelligence. Indeed, it’s quite likely they wouldn’t need to fake it, as there are likely many “scholars” who would willingly sign up for the job. 

Long and sordid history

There is a long history of co-operation and collaboration between American intelligence agencies and academics. Almost a century ago, the seminal anthropologist Franz Boas was ostracised for revealing that academics were serving as spies in Latin America, a practice that apparently started in Mexico and was strengthened in World War II. As Boas argued, any scholar “who uses science as a cover for political spying, who demeans himself to pose before a foreign government as an investigator and asks for assistance in his alleged researches in order to carry on, under this cloak, his political machinations, prostitutes science in an unpardonable way and forfeits the right to be classed as a scientist”.

Scholars were also part and parcel of the allied effort in World War II in various capacities, including with the CIA’s precursor, the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services). Since its creation in 1947, the Agency has routinely enlisted academics to engage in research and analysis, and recruited new generations of agents from the “best and brightest” students at elite colleges and universities. While the relationship waned somewhat in the 1970s and 1980s, it had already started to rebound before the September 11, 2001 attacks and grew substantially in their wake. 

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Whatever one’s ideological or political views towards the CIA, it’s natural that intelligence agencies would recruit employees in the same way as do the best corporations, or federal law enforcement for that matter. But it is one thing for the CIA or military to recruit students on campus. And under certain conditions, academics can do research for the military, diplomatic and/or intelligence communities, as long as the researcher doesn’t hide this fact. It’s also to be expected that experienced soldiers with higher academic degrees will do research and teach at military or even non-military colleges on subjects in which they’ve gained unique expertise or perspectives.

But the CIA’s relationship with academia has gone much deeper in the last sixty years than merely sponsoring research that can help it analyse intelligence data. The Agency has not merely relied on the expertise of scholars on countries and cultures it engages. It has sponsored research and journals without publicly declaring its funding, and used academics to help produce disinformation and engage directly in activities related to spying. Moreover, in Southeast Asia (particularly in Vietnam during the war years), Latin America and Africa, research on “third world” development studies and techniques in counter-insurgency became staples of CIA-academic collaborations.

A January 2001 Los Angeles Times article by political scientist David Gibbs explained that “the ‘cloak and gown’ connection has flourished in the aftermath of the Cold War… Since 1996, the CIA has made public outreach a ‘top priority and targets academia in particular. According to experts on US intelligence, the strategy has worked’.” Gibbs was building on a longer 2000 article in the magazine Lingua Franca by Chris Mooney, which went into even greater detail about the renewed scholar-spy relationship.

Discussing the issue with Gibbs after we’d both read the Washington Post article, he explained in dismay, “Such situations present classic conflicts of interest. The problem is compounded by the fact that academic consulting agreements with intelligence agencies are highly secretive – thus undermining yet another basic tenet of academic research, which is the need for openness and full disclosure.”

It’s worth recalling here the response of the 1976 Church Committee Report, which investigated the abuses of the intelligence community, to the situation Gibbs discusses. The report declared:

“The Committee is disturbed both by the present practices of operationally using American academics and by the awareness that the restraints on expanding this practice are primarily those of sensitivity to the risks of disclosure and not an appreciation of dangers to the integrity of individuals and institutions.”


Despite the ethical problems associated with such collaborations, over the years prominent scholars such as Columbia University’s Robert Jervis, Harvard’s Joseph Nye and Texas A&M’s Robert Gates have not only supported the CIA-academia relationship, but have served at the highest positions of the CIA. Most recently, Gates, the former CIA Director and Defence Secretary, has spearheaded the Minerva Research Initiative, which attempts to achieve a “deeper understanding of global populations and their variance [to] yield more effective strategic and operational policy decisions”. 

Even the leadership of UC Berkeley, home of the 60s’ academic counter-culture, was directly involved in promoting research done under academic cover but in fact being produced by and for the CIA. In the context of the Cold War, even supposedly “liberal” public figures broadly supported the strategic – political, economic, scientific and cultural – competition with the Soviet Union. 

“Franz Boas was ostracised for revealing that academics were serving as spies in Latin America, a practice that apparently started in Mexico and was strengthened in World War II.”

However powerful and prescient Franz Boas’ sentiment recalled above, it’s not farfetched to imagine that in the present economic and political climate, finding people with a claim to legitimate status as academics to work as spies will not be that difficult, and that doing so will seriously damage the integrity of academia, diminish an already shrinking funding stream for non-military research as money is allocated to fund scholars who spy (the oldest carrot in the academic world), and most important, put the research and even lives of non-spying scholars in danger.

One might ask, given the far greater levels of violence in which the intelligence community and military are involved, is the (re)joining of scholars and spies really worth getting up in arms about? 

Yes, it is.

It’s hard enough to go to a region of the world where one’s government is engaged either in violent activities through war, occupation or drone activities (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen), supports the oppressive policies of the local government (Morocco, Bahrain, Israel, Egypt, etc) or as bad, is actively engaged in espionage against it (Iran, Sudan), and try to win the trust of social, religious and/or political activists who would naturally be on the radar of their own and foreign intelligence services. Such relationships will be even harder, if not nearly impossible, to develop if it becomes known that the US government is actively using scholars (and, we can presume, journalists) as covers for intelligence operatives. 

Equally bad would be the agreement by universities, without the consent or even knowledge of their faculty and students, to provide covers for clandestine intelligence operatives, thereby putting legitimate scholars at risk without them having any idea of their so being. Such a situation would permanently taint every scholar engaged in research in the field in the Muslim majority world, or with diaspora Muslim communities in Europe or North America.

However it is done, such practices would undoubtedly make it well-nigh impossible either to produce the kind of well-researched and objective knowledge that is crucial for accurate policy-making by governments, or to know when the research being produced is done explicitly to promote clandestine strategic ends, or is in fact deliberate disinformation or is otherwise tainted as the product of espionage or otherwise clandestine activities.

Scholars in the field

In recent years, not just the Minerva Program, but also the Human Terrain Systems (HTS) programmes have attempted to place scholars in the field of “kinetic operations” in order to help advance military and strategic objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are numerous ethical problems with such programmes, as well as intellectual problems associated with the production of end-user determined knowledge.

But at least such scholars, directly embedded with the military in the field, do not – as far as I have heard – pretend to be independent and outside military control. But to have scholars literally spying on the people they’re studying, and in a way that puts their findings directly into the “kill chain” and thus can lead to the deaths of these subjects without any internationally accepted legal standard or judicial review, is in fact deplorable.

Lest readers think that I’m being alarmist, in a follow-up article to the Washington Post piece, the Guardian reported that officials are having trouble filling the hundreds of spots that will be created by this programme, which means they’ll be even more hard-pressed not to recruit members of academia. It further reported that the spying could be used to increase the efficacy of the US drone programme, which has been heavily criticised for the use of “signature strikes” that target and kill people merely for looking or behaving in a way those behind the trigger button declare is suspicious.

We might imagine that most scholars, students or journalists would not risk their reputations, never mind their freedom and even lives, to spy on people while doing field work. But the success of the HTS and Minerva programmes show that in an era of deep budget cuts for research funding for students and professors, and a similar crisis facing journalism, there is likely no shortage of people who would feel compelled (or be willing) to engage in such work if enough compensation were offered to induce their participation. 

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Even worse, as I have explained in earlier columns (here and here), a parallel scholarly universe to the existing professional systems is being created, in part through the HTS and Minerva programmes and the rise of well-funded (neo)conservative think-tanks. This set of networks and institutions has access to comparatively large levels of funding from private, corporate and government sources, and is ideologically and professionally much closer to military and intelligence agencies and the policies they promote and serve than the existing professional scholarly establishment.

There may not be much interaction between scholars in these parallel universes, but the differences between them will be largely lost to anyone on the ground who could now reasonably suspect that the academic interviewing them could be an intelligence operative.

Protecting academics and the broader public globally

It’s perhaps not surprising given its past association with military and intelligence activities that the American Anthropology Association has taken the lead in prohibiting members from engaging in spying or other clandestine activities in the guise of research. Its current Code of Ethics declares that:

“Researchers who mislead participants about the nature of the research and/or its sponsors; who omit significant information that might bear on a participant’s decision to engage in the research; or who otherwise engage in clandestine or secretive research that manipulates or deceives research participants about the sponsorship, purpose, goals or implications of the research, do not satisfy ethical requirements for openness, honesty, transparency and fully informed consent.”

In 1982 and 1985, the Middle East Studies Association passed two resolutions that precluded scholars accepting covert funding or doing covert work while working as university-based academics. Other professional associations, such as the American Sociological Association and the American Academy of Religion, might have strong codes of ethics, but they don’t explicitly address the issue of clandestine kill chain co-operation or collaboration between scholars and military and intelligence agencies. It’s now time for all professional scholarly associations who might possibly be impacted by the renewed drive to recruit academics or use academic cover for spying to take a firm public stand against such practices. 

What is clear is that the academic community needs to create a clear firewall between itself and the military and intelligence communities now, before any programme is put into place to use academia as a cover for spying and other clandestine activities. If this does not happen soon, the inevitable disasters that result, including the arrests, imprisonment or even deaths of actual academics and/or the people with whom they work or study, will be on all our hands.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.