Scholars and Spies: How US intelligence uses Academia


Khwaja Akbar |

Pakistan’s elite view world renowned American universities, such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, etc. as impartial and honest organizations. Whereas, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and members of the United States Intelligence Community (USIC) are seen as dangerous rivals. However, many remain unaware that the CIA, alongside other US intelligence organizations, have always shared an intimate relationship with Ivy League colleges. A connection that has allowed Intelligence officials, access and ability to exploit students and professors in universities across America, to further the national security interests of the US.

This is best captured by Mcgeorge Bundy’s description of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS – predecessor to the CIA). Bundy was an intelligence officer during World War II, and went onto become the Dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. He was also the National Security Adviser to President John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson:

“A remarkable institution (OSS), half cops-and-robbers and half faculty meeting.”

Over the past few decades, with the exception of the Vietnam era, USIC has inducted hundreds of academics and students often through deception and intimidation, involving over a hundred colleges, for the purposes of espionage. A recent staff poll revealed that almost one-third of university staffers were contacted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), to assist in intelligence activities. A figure that does not include the activities of the CIA and approaches made by the FBI, without the explicit approval of the universities. As happened in 2011, after the FBI harassed Libyan students nationwide, exposed by Mohamed Farhat, in an attempt to recruit them to assist in espionage activities, following the Arab Spring.

In return the CIA allows academics access to their files and pays them under a separate program known as ‘scholars-in-residence’.

An example of intimidating foreign born professors, would be the case of Dajin Peng. Princeton educated Peng, came from China and was teaching at the University of South Florida (USF). He was contacted by Dianne Mercurio of the FBI’s counter intelligence desk, to spy on Chinese students and provide access to Chinese government functionaries, with the help of USF.

Peng’s entrapment and the FBI’s involvement in pressuring University officials with respect to internal academic issues, created an alarming situation. However, unable to stand upto the powerful USIC, USF later hired a retired Marine General and signed a memorandum of understanding with US Central Command to pursue activities of mutual value, establishing close ties with USIC despite the coercion of Peng.

When targeting foreign students, the FBI receives information about their background, from the State Department. Nick Abaid, FBI’s former counter intelligence officer, describes using these lists for the purposes of espionage. For example, he interviewed around 200 Chinese students at Princeton, successfully converting ten into longterm informants, with the help and support of the University.

Apart from foreign born professors and students, the USIC co-opts American professors for various purposes. For example, the CIA’s officers-in-residence program, allowed undercover Art Hulnick to identify one of his students, a Kuwaiti Prince, as a target for the CIA, while he taught at Boston University. In another case, John Kiriakou of the CIA, who captured Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan, was recruited by Dr Jerrold Post as a student. After working for the CIA, Post later taught at George Washington University.

Read more: Edward Snowden will publish a memoir: How the US spies on the world

Even Pakistani students remain high on the agency’s list of targets for espionage, as an intelligence agency, requested a staffer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, to provide details of students who were rising stars in the Pakistan government and police force.

On several occasions, US professors liase with the CIA, such as Joseph Nye of Harvard, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Nye debriefed the CIA about information collected on a foreign trip, visiting foreign government officials. In return the CIA allows academics access to their files and pays them under a separate program known as ‘scholars-in-residence’.

In addition, the USIC provides funding to US colleges for various projects. John Hopkins, Georgia Tech and Penn State being the three largest receivers of National Security Funding. Examples include: The Minerva initiative (which provides colleges funding to conduct social science research in regions, strategically important to US security), Boren awards (where Congress provides universities funding, to send students abroad to study in territories critical to US security), and several weapon systems development program involving universities such as Duke, University of Maryland, North Carolina University in Raleigh, Virginia Polytech Institute and State University, University of Wisconsin, etc.

In the case of Penn State, USIC found an activist friend in Graham B. Spanier, former president of Penn State. Spanier helped open the doors to several other universities for the USIC, by formalizing the relationship between universities and the intelligence community through the creation of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board (NSHEAB), which includes deans of dozens of top US universities along with members of the USIC. The Minerva Initiative, mentioned earlier, was also developed due to efforts of Spanier and then Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who himself served as the Dean of the Texas A&M University, after retiring from the CIA as its chief. It is therefore no surprise that Spanier received the Warren medal from the CIA, the agency’s highest honor for non-employees.

In such an environment, it is essential that students from Pakistan remain alert to the approaches made by USIC and remain wary of trusting foreign institutions and professors.

Apart from the above collaboration, the CIA would stage academic conferences, around the world for the specific purpose of espionage. This would involve payments to Think-tanks, Policy and Research institutes such as CENTRA and the RAND corporation to front for the CIA, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in payments. Some of the professors taking part in the drama are aware of CIA’s staging of the event, yet continue to support it. Such conferences have proven successful in seducing foreign academics, to work for the CIA. However, in other cases, refusal to acquiesce to the agency’s demands has led to the assassination of some individuals. Examples include the cases of Majid Shahriai and Masoud Ali Mohammadi, Iranian nuclear scientists.

In all of the above cases, US universities served the US Government and promised to protect the identities of agents due to their allegiance to the homeland, irrespective of any ethical concerns and academic principles. An act lambasted by Franz Boas, almost a century ago, in his letter titled “Scientists as spies”, published by the Nation on December 20, 1919:

“… The point against which I wish to enter a vigorous protest is that a number of men who follow science as their profession, men whom I refuse to designate any longer as scientists, have prostituted science by using it as a cover for their activities as spies.”

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In such an environment, it is essential that students from Pakistan remain alert to the approaches made by USIC and remain wary of trusting foreign institutions and professors.

Khawaja Akbar is a part-time lecturer with an interest in history, politics and economics. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.