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Spies In the Classroom: The Government Is Running a Secretive Intelligence Recruitment Program in Schools

The "Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program" may become a permanent budget item, making universities unwitting agents of state intelligence.

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Back in the early 1990s when the National Security Education Program (NSEP) was first introduced it was widely condemned by professional associations like the Middle East Studies Association and the African Studies Association, Latin American Studies Association for blurring the lines between independent scholarship raised by NSEP’s its requirements that program participants later seek employment in governmental agencies. But with the depressed economy, plummeting endowment funds at universities and foundations, the difficult academic job market, and scarce academic funding sources, I fear that professional associations’ reactions against these developments will be muted. As pilot programs, PRISP and the Intelligence Community Scholars Programs made scarce funds available to students, as traditional non-payback funding programs were being cut. Programs like PRISP that seek to tie young scholars to agencies like CIA early in their career as a means of bringing new ideas and skills to these agencies will fail in meeting the claimed goal of getting these agencies to think in new ways because such ties to institutional culture early in student-agent careers will increase the influence of agency cultural groupthink while diminishing the impact of academic culture. If the Obama administration really wants to improve governmental agencies’ knowledge of and approaches to the world, they need to increase funding to a broad range of educational funding programs that do not encumber or limit the range of knowledge in the ways that programs like PRISP do.

This move to establish PRISP as a permanent budgetary item is the sort of program that likely will speed through congress -- which can then claim it is both supporting education funding, and military and intelligence sectors, with a bonus feel-good work-ethic mandate thrown-in by requiring students to payback their funds through required future governmental service. But this push will be done without an outside assessment of PRISP as pilot program. PRISP needs an independent assessment of what it has accomplished -- including an assessment of the impact of the predatory penalties facing former PRISP students who come to realize that they do not wish to fulfill their commitments to work for these agencies upon graduation. Because of the lack of transparency surrounding PRISP, we have little idea what is really going on with the program. Last year I was able to identify one social science recipient of PRISP funds who explained to me that PRISP had been such a failure in finding social scientists to fund that PRISP had sought out this person and provided them with funds for work that was already underway just to spend-down the PRISP budget. Given these recent difficulties with the program, I wonder if the current expansion of PRISP is a supply-side effort to troll the pool of increasingly underfunded and debt-carrying desperate young scholars with few other funding options.

Professional associations like the American Association of University Professors, the American Psychological Association and the American Anthropological Association need to speak out in opposition of the permanent establishment of PRISP. PRISP risks further blurring already hazy borders marking proper independent academic roles, and it stands to confuse academic identities in ways that many will not even realize. Some of these processes are reminiscent of a recurrent motif in Philip K. Dick’s stories where protagonists becomes unclear of their own agency and identity; becoming unsure of their own histories and memories, or true political alliances -- in effect becoming undercover agents with identities unknown even to themselves. As this new generation of programs covertly brings undeclared and unidentifiable students into our universities they disrupt university identities and transforms the roles all who teach, research, study and work there in ways that they will not necessarily understand -- as institutions of higher learning further lose their independence and become unwitting agents of state intelligence functions.

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