How the Feds Are Recruiting Spies at Campuses Across the US

Spy agencies have spent millions on funding centers in universities nationwide.

Photo Credit: Vladimir Gjorgiev/

The following is an excerpt from The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent edited by Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira. Reprinted with permission of University of Minnesota Press.

In July 2005, a select group of fifteen- to nineteen-year-old high school students participated in a week-long summer program called “Spy Camp” in the Washington, DC, area. The program included a field trip to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, an “intelligence simulation” exercise, and a visit to the $35 million International Spy Museum. According to the Spy Museum’s website, visiting groups have the option of choosing from three different “scavenger hunts,” in which teams are pitted against one another in activities ranging “from code-breaking to deceptive maneuvers. . . . Each team will be armed with a top secret bag of tricks to help solve challenging questions” that can be found in the museum.

On the surface, the program sounds like fun and games, and after reading about the program one might guess that it was organized by an imagina- tive social studies teacher. But for some, “Spy Camp” was more than just fun and games—it was very serious business. The high school program was car- ried out by Trinity University of Washington, DC—a predominantly African American university with an overwhelmingly female student population—as part of a pilot grant from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to create an “Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence” (or IC Center).

According to the Office of the DNI, the goal of the IC Center program is to increase the pool of future applicants for careers in the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the dozen or so other organizations that make up the U.S. “intelligence community”—in less euphemistic terms, America’s spy agencies.

The idea for IC Centers came about in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, when both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives held hearings about how the country’s spy agencies missed clues that might have foiled the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. As part of the response, Congress passed a sweeping law called the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (S 2845). In the House Intelligence Committee hearings prior to the bill’s passage, California representative Jane Harman (Democrat from California and chair of the House Intelligence Committee) put it bluntly: “We can no longer expect an Intelligence Community that is mostly male and mostly white to be able to monitor and infiltrate suspicious organizations or terrorist groups. We need spies that look like their targets, CIA officers who speak the dialects that terrorists use, and FBI agents who can speak to Muslim women that might be intimidated by men” (emphasis added).

For this reason, the IC Center program wasn’t aimed at students attending Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or other Ivy League schools or internationally renowned universities like Stanford or Berkeley or the University of Chicago. The program’s architects consciously directed it at schools where minority students are the majority—predominantly African American and Latino universities, which are chronically underfunded. Perhaps this reflects the shape of “multiculturalism” in a militarized society: the government’s spy agencies and armed forces recruit minority students from low-income regions in order to “monitor and infiltrate” people (“targets”) that look and speak like them.

Since 2005, Trinity’s IC Center has had its funding renewed, and “Spy Camp” has continued every summer since. In fact, beginning in 2006, the director of National Intelligence dramatically expanded the IC Center program (of which the “Spy Camp” is only one part), and today there are a total of twenty-one such centers throughout the country. These are located at California State University, San Bernardino; Carnegie-Mellon University; Clemson University; Clark Atlanta University; Florida A&M University; Florida International University; Howard University; Miles College (Alabama); Norfolk State University (Virginia); North Carolina A&T University; Pennsylvania State University; Tennessee State University; Trinity University; University of Maryland, College Park; University of Nebraska; University of New Mexico; University of North Carolina, Wilmington; University of Texas, El Paso; University of Texas, Pan American; University of Washington; Virginia Tech; and Wayne State University (Michigan). Significantly, most of these universities have large numbers of minority students, which corresponds with the original objectives of the IC Center program’s architects. Tens of millions of dollars have been appropriated for the programs, with some centers receiving individual grants of up to $750,000. According to the Washington Post, the DNI planned to expand the program to twenty universities by the year 2015. Apparently, it has met this goal far ahead of schedule. (Since 2008, the DNI has included universities with significantly higher percentages of “white” students. It appears that the DNI quickly exhausted its supply of predominantly Hispanic and African American universities.)

This is by no means the first time that U.S. military and intelligence agen- cies have funneled large sums of money into universities to advance their interests. The 1958 National Defense Education Act led to the creation of dozens of language and area studies programs focused on Russia, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, but those centers generally did not limit scholars’ ability to pursue a wide range of research, including critical social science research building upon anti-imperial and leftist scholarship. By contrast, there are clear indications that the IC Centers and other new recruitment programs have much more focused and narrow objectives that threaten core educational values that have underpinned American universities for many years.

Judging from some students’ responses, it seems that the DNI programs are making an impact. News reports from college newspapers begin to tell the story. Najam Hassan, a nineteen-year-old student at Trinity University, said, “It’s a good opportunity. I have interest in the FBI.” Reagan Thompson, who is seventeen, told a reporter, “I want to be a spy when I grow up. You learn different perspectives and it opens your mind.” Meriam Fadli, also seventeen, said, “I was like ‘Oh my God, I am so joining the FBI’. . . . She [the speaker] made it seem so interesting. It’s not like a dull office job.” Leah Martin, a twenty-one-year-old, decided that she wanted an intelligence career after getting involved in the program: “You get to travel, to do something different every day, you’re challenged in your work and you get to serve your country. How cool is that?” The picture that emerges from these and other comments is that students are drawn to the IC Centers because they offer exciting, challenging experiences that will serve the country—not unlike the reasons that many young people decide to enlist in the armed forces. Television series that glorify law enforcement agents (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), intelligence operatives (24), and military personnel (JAG) have greatly romanticized these careers.

University administrators and faculty like the IC Centers for other rea- sons. Obviously there are the issues of funding and job placement for grad- uating students. But some also emphasize the importance of building an ethnically and culturally diverse pool of intelligence agents who might blend in more easily abroad. Norfolk State University geology professor David Padgett told the journal Diverse Online, “When a lot of higher education funding shifted after September 11 into defense, a lot of Black colleges weren’t in a position to take advantage of it. We saw an opening. In order to have a diverse work force in the intelligence arena, you have to get to minority- serving institutions. In intelligence, people have to go to areas populated by people of color.”

Economist Dennis Soden, who is executive director of the Institute for Policy and Economic Development, a University of Texas, El Paso, unit that was awarded an IC Center grant, had this to say:

In the intelligence community before, it was really a white male, Ivy League, Big-10 kind of place. All these guys who went to Harvard, Wisconsin, and Yale looked like America and they got the jobs and ended up just slapping each other on the back telling each other how great they were. Of course, we found out they weren’t very good because they couldn’t find WMDs and they couldn’t figure out what was going on. There is a real sense that the agencies were just recruiting from the same places all the time and getting the same people over and over again—it was like a type of inbreeding. . . .The US-Mexico border is now a national security interest, but who really understands it? A guy at Yale who takes Spanish for a few years doesn’t really understand it. The idea is to get people both for domestic and international intelligence purposes who reflect the country and understand all of its nuances.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence promoted the IC Center program heavily during its first few years of existence. The original IC Cen- ter program plan is a twenty-five-page document that clearly lays out goals and procedures. Under the title “Pre-College/High School Outreach” is the subheading “Summer Camp (for elementary and junior high students).” The program plan notes, “Institutions may consider coordinating summer camps for junior high students. The camps should be at least one week in duration with high energy programs that excite the participants. . . . They should focus on developing the critical skill of ‘thinking before you act.’”

Though it is not clear whether or not elementary and junior high students have been included in IC Center programs so far, the Office of the DNI clearly supports this idea. (The CIA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Agency, and the Defense Intelligence Agency all have “Kids’ Page” websites that include games, puzzles, and, occasionally, sanitized histories of the agencies.) Nearly all universities that have received funding for IC Centers have created high school outreach programs. For example, Norfolk State’s program included a simulation exercise in which faculty asked Nashville-area high schoolers to locate ten simulated “weapons of mass destruction” hidden in the city using GPS locators.

The name “Spy Camp” was only used once, at Trinity University. Now the high school outreach programs are known in many places as “Summer Intelligence Seminars.”

Recruiting Intelligence?

What makes the new IC Centers across the country different from other insti- tutes or research centers? Though there are numerous differences from one school to the next, several universities appear to be involved in three kinds of activities apart from high school outreach programs like “Spy Camp.”

Curriculum development—especially the creation of new classes—is a common process for IC Center schools. Many participating universities are creating new majors and minors in “intelligence studies” and developing new courses to meet the demands of spy agencies. For example, Trinity Uni- versity developed a new course titled “East vs. West: Just War, Jihad and Cru- sade, 1050–1450.” While the title itself is benign (though it conjures up images of the “clash of civilizations” popularized by historian Samuel Huntington), the syllabus reportedly states that the course “seeks to develop the critical/ analytical and writing skills that are particularly important to the intelligence community.” (We are left to wonder what the costs of favoring some kinds of writing—perhaps intelligence briefs and PowerPoint presentations—over others might be.) In some cases new masters’ programs are also being developed, which might result in new faculty hiring. New classes in languages deemed important to U.S. security are being established as well (particularly in Arabic and Mandarin), and many campuses are purchasing books and films to support these new courses.

Another group of activities includes organized events such as academic colloquia and guest lectures. Like all university special events, these can be intellectually stimulating, particularly when a thought-provoking or controversial speaker is invited to speak. But what should occur when a guest lecture or other campus event becomes a recruiting pitch for spy agencies?

Finally, nearly all the IC Centers include scholarship and travel abroad programs. The same law that brought the IC Centers into existence also created the new “Intelligence Community Scholarship Program” (ICSP). Scholarship fellows take required intelligence-related courses and are typically eligible for study abroad experiences and internships with spy agencies. According to the law, ICSP students who do not take jobs with U.S. intelligence agencies after graduating are required “to repay the costs of their education plus penalties assessed at three times the legally allowed interest rate.” Like PRISP (the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholarship Program, a $25,000, one-year scholarship for undergraduate and graduate students that requires them to work for the CIA after graduation), the identities of students are not publicly announced. Congress established PRISP in 2004 as a kind of academic version of the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program: it was designed to combine intelligence training skills with academic areas of expertise, such as anthropology or political science. Since its creation PRISP has placed hundreds of students in an unknown number of university classrooms. Although critics have referred to such programs as “debt bondage to constrain student career choices,” President Barack Obama’s director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, announced in 2009 plans to make PRISP permanent.

In and of themselves, these activities sound benign, even desirable. After all, who could argue against funding for new courses, films, guest speakers, conferences, and scholarships, particularly during this period of chronic underfunding of higher education? But there is a subtle danger posed by the deluge of funds reaching universities through IC Centers—a danger similar to that posed by military funding. Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson has written eloquently about the ways in which this can twist the education process over time. A wide range of problems comes into focus:

When research that could be funded by neutral civilian agencies is instead funded by the military, knowledge is subtly militarized and bent in the way a tree is bent by a prevailing wind. The public comes to accept that basic academic research on religion and violence “belongs” to the military; scholars who never saw themselves as doing military research now do; maybe they wonder if their access to future funding is best secured by not criticizing US foreign policy; a discipline whose independence from military and corporate funding fueled the kind of critical thinking a democracy needs is now compromised; and the priorities of the military further define the basic terms of public and academic debate.

In short, the IC Centers could further threaten the notion of the classroom as a free “marketplace of ideas”—a process that is well under way due to the powerful influence exerted on college campuses by multinational corporations and other commercial interests. The fact that the “intelligence com- munity” includes heavy representation from Pentagon agencies (such as DIA and Marine Corps Intelligence, to name but two) and is closely linked to military contract firms further underscores the significance of Gusterson’s words.