Spooks in the Academy

by Henry Farrell on March 23, 2005

Should the US academy be trying harder to meet the needs of the intelligence services? That’s the question underlying David Glenn’s fascinating article in this week’s Chronicle. His piece analyzes the debates surrounding a new program in which CIA analysts are sent back to university to acquire specialized training in the social sciences. On the one hand, the program’s defenders point to the urgent need for a better understanding of the cultures and languages of the Middle East and Central Asia. On the other, critics argue that this could lead to CIA monitoring of what is taught in universities, to difficulties for US academic researchers abroad (who might be perceived as spooks in disguise), and to positive harm for those being studied in the foreign countries in question.

This is the latest battle in a long-drawn out war, which has been most bitterly waged in anthropology and area-studies programs. These disciplines have changed radically over time – roughly speaking, they started by studying other cultures (often for the benefit of those in power in their home country), but now see their mission as representing these cultures (often against those in power in their home country). Hence, for example, the continuing debate over whether Title VI funded programs should be allowed to purvey “anti-American views,” a debate which has gotten entangled with arguments over a previously existing program designed to encourage intelligence specialists to go back to university. The bitterness of the dispute has less to do with the pragmatic issues at stake than with starkly different answers to the underlying question of why academics should be studying other countries. Should we be studying these countries for the sake of those other cultures and countries themselves, or because this knowledge is valuable to US policy makers (who may then perhaps use that knowledge in ways that are inimical to the interests of those countries)?

I’ll confess to having mixed feelings about this question. One reason for the problems that US policy has encountered in the Middle East and elsewhere is the lack of basic understanding among many US policy makers about how other countries work. Anything that would improve this level of knowledge has to have some positive consequences. I would have no problems whatsoever with having an intelligence analyst take one of my classes – whether I knew her real job and identity or not (although I’ll note that the topics I teach don’t usually touch upon politically sensitive topics). On the other hand, I do think that there are real risks attached to a tighter relationship between intelligence services and universities, although they’re rather more subtle than CIA or FBI monitoring of what professors say in class (which I suspect is almost entirely a bogus concern). There’s a very perceptible shift in the funding environment in the social sciences over the last few years – a lot of government money is sloshing around for research on terrorism, Middle East politics, and national security. Along with this shift comes a danger – that social scientists become less likely to want to rock the boat by making politically controversial statements that might annoy their paymasters. The academy is, for better or worse, one of the few places in American society where politically awkward issues can get proper debate. I’d hate to see that disappear.

There’s an online debate starting today at 1pm to accompany the article. Expect fireworks. This is probably as good a time as any to note that David (together with two other reporters in the Chronicle, and Scott McLemee who is now elsewhere) is up for a National Magazine Award for the Chronicle’s special report on plagiarism, which I blogged here last December. Congratulations.



Kevin Donoghue 03.23.05 at 12:43 pm

J.K. Galbraith remarked on the Prussian policemen who hounded Karl Marx (I am quoting from memory): One longs, in our own day, for policemen capable of being moved to anger by such prose.

Of course there are risks but on balance educated spooks are preferable.


Dan Simon 03.23.05 at 3:36 pm

The bitterness of the dispute has less to do with the pragmatic issues at stake than with starkly different answers to the underlying question of why academics should be studying other countries.
Is that really the question in dispute? Surely everyone on all sides of the question would concede that academics should be studying other countries for the same reasons they study anything else–to add to the world’s store of knowledge and understanding.
The question I thought was in dispute is, “why should the US government set up a multimillion-dollar special funding program (Title VI) to pay academics specifically to study other countries?” My understanding is that the original justification for this extra funding was that the availability in America of additional academic expertise in foreign countries and their languages would benefit America’s national security in a number of direct ways. It’s therefore worth asking whether that money is accomplishing its purpose.
If not, then the obvious next question is whether the assigned government funds are best spent to promote some other kind of scholarship–or perhaps on something else entirely. Academics who study foreign countries without desiring to contribute in any way to America’s national security would still be free to pursue their pure mission of intellectual inquiry, of course–but on somebody else’s dime.


Matt Weiner 03.23.05 at 10:14 pm

I found the online chat thoroughly dispiriting. Professor Moos used the phrase “The United States is at war” in literally the first four straight answers as well has his opening statement. Admittedly the first two questions were fairly rude but then there’s this:

What specific safeguards are in place to prevent the CIA from using the Pat Roberts program to run more covert ops on our campuses? What is you understanding of the ethics of anthropologists conducting secret research?

Felix Moos:
The United States is at war and that pertains as well to U.S. institutions of higher learning. Nevertheless, every campus has a number of safeguards and a great many vigilant faculty members and students who would counteract any CIA covert ops. Have you contacted your own administration about such safeguards on your campus?

So, someone expresses concern that this program will lead to covert operations on campus, and Moos says that the war includes those campuses, and that it’s the responsibility of the universities to prevent covert operations. In other words, it sounds like he’s saying “Yes we will be conducting operations on campus because that’s the home front; whatcha gonna do about it, huh?”

I share Henry’s thoughts about the considerations in favor of these proposals (CIA, if you want to know about the epistemology of testimony, feel free to call me!) But if the program is run as Prof. Moos wishes I fear it will realize none of the potential goods and all of the potential harms. (Nor does Pat Roberts’ imprimatur inspire confidence; he’s been a prominent advocate of burying inconvenient facts.)


Tom T. 03.23.05 at 11:56 pm

Couldn’t something be arranged so that the appropriate courses for these CIA analysts are taught at someplace like the National Defense University, which is federally-run, respected in its fields of study, and presumably fully on board with the government’s national-security mission? It seems that such an arrangement would eliminate many of the potential problems mentioned.


james 03.24.05 at 9:59 am

The US universities feel free to accept large sums from Middle Eastern nations, charities, religious institutions, and individuals. Even though these entities have stated political and social goals, the universities feel academically secure enough to accept these donations. For some reason accepting funds from the US government or other US institutions threatens academic freedom. The only difference in the strings attached is the political leaning of the groups behind them.


Matt Weiner 03.24.05 at 11:23 am

James, if you would read one single thing about the controversy–say, Dan’s post about title VI funding earlier in the thread–you would realize that universities and academics are quite happy to accept funding from the US government. [And many universities are funded and run by state governments.] They are in many cases not happy about accepting those funds when they have strings attached, because allowing your funders to dictate the content of your research and teaching threatens academic freedom and integrity. They are also unhappy, as far as I know, about accepting money from Middle East groups when those Middle East groups attach strings, because allowing your funders to dictate the content of your research and teaching threatens academic freedom and integrity. There’s no inconsistency here.


james 03.24.05 at 12:08 pm

matt – My comment was that universities are willing to overlook the strings as long as the entity attaching the strings has a compatible political view with the university (example Columbia University. If the best response you can come up with is to suggest that I haven’t read the material, why bother posting a response at all?


Matt Weiner 03.24.05 at 12:57 pm

James, this sentence of yours:
For some reason accepting funds from the US government or other US institutions threatens academic freedom.
is falsified, as I said, by the most cursory reading of the material.

You may have meant, “Accepting funds that come with strings attached from US government or other US institutions threatens academic freedom.” You didn’t say that, but let’s assume you meant that. Then you need to prove that the funding from Middle East etc. that universities have accepted comes with strings attached. A thesis for which you haven’t presented a scintilla of evidence (and which wasn’t in your original post, if you read it closely).

If Columbia accepted funding with strings attached, then that is improper and inimical to academic freedom and I condemn it. I reckon that it’s also something that has happened on both sides of the political spectrum. You might want to look at recent doings at Utah Valley State College to see how governmental funding can be used to threaten academic freedom from the right. (And since you didn’t provide a link, you don’t get one.)

As to “Why bother to respond,” I don’t know really. I won’t be responding to the next one.

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