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University of Fear

The Department of Homeland Security is becoming a big man on campus.
 
 
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Last September the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the first 100 recipients of its new collegiate financial-aid program. Grouped in the applied, social and behavioral sciences, the winners included 13 Californians. The undergraduate scholarships cover tuition and fees, along with a nine-month stipend of $9,000; graduate fellowships also cover tuition and fees, and come with a yearlong $27,600 living subsidy. All must be U.S. citizens and “indicate a willingness to accept, after graduation, competitive employment offers from DHS, state and local security offices, DHS-affiliated federal laboratories, or DHS-related university faculty or research staff positions.”

At the time no one knew of these new Homeland facilities — they didn’t exist. But last November DHS announced a $12 million, three-year grant to the University of Southern California to establish, under the school’s engineering department, the Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE). In April two new centers will open, concentrating on “agro-terrorism,” while other, long-established research facilities are falling under DHS control. And, in a little-publicized battle, a congressional bill championed by conservatives would require DHS or other “security” officers to be appointed to a new advisory board overseeing international studies and foreign-language programs receiving federal aid; it unanimously passed the House last October and is now steaming through the Senate.

The speed and scope of DHS’s financial-aid program, aimed at “harnessing the nation’s scientific knowledge to protect America and our way of life from terrorists and their weapons of mass destruction,” has been breathtaking — scholarship programs can require a year to get off the ground, but the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education cobbled it together in a matter of weeks, using a pre-existing model.

DHS’s growing sugar-daddy role on American campuses is but one way in which the year-old security agency, formed in the wake of 9/11, has begun to leave a deep boot print on academia. Primed with a $70 million scholarship and research budget, DHS represents the biggest intrusion into America’s intellectual life by security agencies since the height of the Cold War. However, while the CIA surreptitiously worked its magic in the 1950s to control, say, the National Student Association, Praeger Publishers or Encounter magazine, DHS’s influence is a broad-daylight affair.

Only the Manhattan Project or America’s space program can compare to the commitment of federal resources and political will that have been lavished on the Department of Homeland Security, an amoeba-like bureaucracy formed by fusing 22 formerly independent agencies. Homeland, with the third largest civilian work force of the 15 executive-Cabinet departments, employs 183,000 people (including 1,500 lawyers) and commands a nearly $40 billion budget. Yet while the Manhattan Project and NASA narrowly targeted two specific goals (the building of the atomic bomb and the exploration of space), the war on terror is so amorphous, its enemy so indeterminate and DHS’s technological goals so esoteric that the department’s mission could conceivably run till the end of time without any gauge of success. To even question Homeland’s effectiveness one has to disprove a negative because, the reasoning goes, if it’s not raining hijacked jets and snowing anthrax, DHS must be doing its job.

This makes Homeland a money magnet, one of the rare federal agencies for which Congress appropriates more funds than the president seeks. And, perhaps not surprisingly, most DHS directorate leaders without backgrounds in law enforcement, the military or CIA/FBI come from an array of iconic corporate and financial institutions including Coca-Cola, PG&E, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, Vivendi Universal S.A. and Corning Inc. Charles E. McQueary, who heads the Directorate of Science and Technology, is a former division president of defense contractor General Dynamics; Elizabeth Lautner, whom McQueary appointed to oversee the troubled Plum Island Animal Disease Center, is a former vice president of the National Pork Board. Furthermore, the security needs of such sector industries as oil, banking and real estate are catered to by DHS’s Information Sharing and Analysis Centers.

In one sense DHS is a 21st-century New Deal — a New Deal, that is, for the military-industrial complex. Technology — especially surveillance and detection technology — is the name of the game at DHS, and so the largesse its Science and Technology Directorate has shown to college and university students is only fitting. Still, many jaws dropped when veteran research scientists first heard of DHS’s Scholars and Fellows awards.

“Twenty-seven thousand, six hundred dollars for a grad student is pretty darn good — that’s lucrative!” says David Wright, an MIT member of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “I’m amazed — usually you think of a program seeding about seven fellows or scholarships a year. But 100? We in the scientific community get frustrated when we hear of government departments like Homeland Security funding new programs that haven’t been fully developed.”

Anthropologist and public-policy scholar Hugh Gusterson, also of MIT as well as the Georgia Institute of Technology, was likewise surprised when first told of the program.

“Financially,” predicts Gusterson, “this will create a group of students that will be better off than their peers — a caste of national-security Brahmin students.” Gusterson finds parallels between DHS’s awards and the private scholarships awarded to bright science and engineering students since the Cold War by the Hertz Foundation, a defense-oriented group created by the ultraconservative rental car magnate John Hertz.

“In the 1960s and ’70s,” he says, “the Hertz Foundation would screen students who they thought likely to work on nuclear-weapons research and send them to Livermore for a summer.”

DHS’s Scholars and Fellows program also flies students on paid summer internships to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, as well as other Energy Department labs specializing in security and nuclear-weapons research such as Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Sandia and Brookhaven. About 2,500 students applied for the aid program during its inaugural year, even though its existence was not widely known. (“This is the first I’m hearing about it,” USC’s senior associate director of financial aid, Guy Hunter, recently told the Weekly.) Last December computer-science grad student Steven J. Bethard and the other recipients of the first year of awards were flown to Washington, D.C., where they met DHS Secretary Tom Ridge and toured DHS facilities.

“The real reason I applied,” says Bethard, a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado, “was because my adviser said, ‘Would you mind applying for this? Colorado University doesn’t have enough money to go around, and the fellowship pays more than your stipend.’”

At the time of his application, Bethard was working on a “data-mining” project that would teach computers to recognize and extract opinions from raw text. One year later, he still is. All he had to do in his application essay was suggest ways his research might help DHS.

“You tool your essay to your audience,” Bethard says. “I said I had this project I’m already working on, and I’m going to convince you guys that this is what you need. I’m not solving anthrax. Someone else who applied was an entomologist. He told them how insects can carry diseases. He got a fellowship too.”

Young science students aren’t the only ones receiving grants and a trip to Washington. DHS, in partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, also offers three postdoctoral Homeland Security Fellows awards to be spent at the Directorate for Science and Technology. These one- to two-year renewable stipends range between $60,000 and $75,000, and are intended “to provide the opportunity to learn through participation how scientific and technological information is used in federal policymaking, to demonstrate the value of science-government interaction, and to bring technical backgrounds and external perspectives to DHS.” Already, then, a policy trout farm based on the malleable concept of anti-terrorism has been established at the undergraduate level and through the senior ranks of scholarship into government itself.

Academia, accordingly, has recognized homeland security as a financial salt lick in these lean times. After all, if nine rural Minnesota fire departments could receive $600,517 in grants from a DHS division and the Little League World Series land $250,000 from the Pennsylvania Commonwealth’s own homeland-security office, why shouldn’t higher education get a little of the runoff? Not surprisingly, then, nearly every college today offers some homeland-security and terror-themed courses, while many major universities have established homeland-security departments — UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Laboratory has a homeland-security office; UCLA’s Extension school offers homeland-security courses; and there are homeland sub-departments at Johns Hopkins, MIT and Ohio State University. Likewise, high-profile conferences and symposia on homeland-security issues have become staples for public-policy institutes, strategic-studies think tanks and engineering schools.

“A lot of that would have happened without the Department of Homeland Security,” Gusterson says about the academy’s new paper chase. “Faculty are pretty entrepreneurial and a lot of professors look for classes that tap into current events and generate excitement.”

There are plenty of current events to tap into these days as America engages more countries and makes more enemies around the world. For now, the dialectic between DHS and the students it funds remains in flux, and it is too early to tell who is using whom. Laura Nader, a senior anthropology professor at UC Berkeley, told the Weekly that ultimately the relationship is not going to benefit the students.

“There is a vulnerability among the young,” she says, “and there are also no jobs for them after they graduate. As a professor it breaks your heart to watch these kids who want to do the right thing but who’ll probably get jobs with him who pays the piper.”

Last January students walking along USC’s Downey Way found their path blocked by several cars and a large detail of campus cops, Highway Patrol officers and federal security agents. The commotion was caused by DHS Secretary Tom Ridge’s paying a secretive visit to the campus after it had beat more than 71 competing institutions to become his agency’s first Center of Excellence. Ridge spent 45 minutes in a congratulatory meeting with members of the School of Engineering, which supervises the center. When the handshaking was over, Ridge was whisked away without so much as a press conference or photo op beneath Tommy Trojan.

A similar cloak-and-dagger visit occurred last August, when DHS undersecretary Charles McQueary and a retinue of security staff descended on the University of Colorado at Boulder — after requesting a media blackout of the event, which campus authorities had hoped would result in their receiving funds for security-related research programs.

“No one was supposed to know about it,” UCB mathematics professor Martin Walter told the Weekly. “The only way you found out he was coming was through the [school] underground.”

The science that will emerge from the dozen new DHS research centers will likely be more of the same unsexy-sounding discoveries that come out of America’s non-DHS national labs — screening methodologies to identify dirty-bomb debris, airborne-particulate analysis, or synthetic aperture radar that will better help drones locate tall men standing in robes. Indeed, to the extent that any of us hears about government research, it’s usually when the 6 o’clock news carries jokey stories about the recent Pentagon-sponsored robot-vehicle race from L.A. to Las Vegas, or a passing item about the Army blowing up willed cadavers with land mines to make a better boot.

Even when such science is filtered through the simian chatter of Action News anchors, however, American consumers intuit that at least some of the nascent technology will trickle down into their cars and TV remotes. They can also assume that, through the miracle of “technology transfer,” tax-funded inventions to emerge from the DHS Centers of Excellence are likely to reap profits for private corporations.

“Homeland Security has been a bonanza for science,” says professor David Hounshell, a technology historian at Carnegie Mellon University. “Immediately after 9/11, people saw these enormous opportunities — if the game was played just right, they could sell Washington these programs that would ‘solve the problem’ of terrorism through technology. That’s very typical because when a major research initiative is announced, researchers start a major repackaging of existing research to get on the gravy train.”

These are perilous times not only for higher education but also for scientific research and development. The level of federal funding for R&D practically flattened in fiscal year 2004, except for three agencies: DHS, the Defense Department and the National Institutes for Health. (NIH’s budget increased primarily to expand its terror-related anthrax research.) This trio accounted for 93 percent of the $9.5 billion increase over 2003’s R&D budget, clearly making them the places to be for a scientist seeking government money.

At DHS, the relationship between government and the private sector is no back-street romance, but a passionate telenovella played out in conference rooms, seminars and press releases. The Homeland Security Advisory Council, for example, is chaired by UBS Paine Webber chief executive officer Joseph Grano Jr. and “staffed” with the CEOs and directors of Lockheed Martin, Dow Chemical, Procter & Gamble, Eli Lilly and Conoco Phillips, to name a few corporate parties interested in fighting terrorism.

“Pharmaceutical companies can’t make money off finding a cure for malaria,” Georgia Tech’s Gusterson told the Weekly, explaining why industry never seems to produce the science the public really needs. “But they can selling Viagra to rich white men who can’t get it up.” And if the government showers tax dollars on the start-up research, so much the better.

Later this year USC’s CREATE program, funded by DHS, will move into the new Tudor Engineering Hall and will offer a master’s degree in systems, safety and security. As senior associate dean for research, Randolph Hall is responsible for technology transfer at the university’s engineering school. Still, Hall, who is CREATE’s co-director, says that the facility will not be marketing technology.

“Our role is to access vulnerability and consequences of terrorism by assessing initial risks, potential targets, loss of life and property damage. The software tools for risk assessment we’ll develop will be freely distributed to governmental markets. We’re not in the business of creating sensors.”

Hall, in fact, says the $12 million that CREATE has received is not a massive amount of money, and indeed it isn’t, compared to the Lotto jackpot received by Carnegie Mellon University, which David Hounshell estimates has received upward of $100 million in homeland-security-related funding.

“The computer-sciences department alone received $35 million almost immediately after 9/11,” Hounshell told the Weekly. “I think a lot of it has to do with Tom Ridge’s previous relationship with us. When he was governor of Pennsylvania he channeled a lot of money to Carnegie Mellon. It’s natural that some money would be channeled here now.”

American research has responded to five major traumas during the last 90 years — the sinking of the Lusitania, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Soviet Sputnik launch, the foreign-oil embargoes of the 1970s, and 9/11, Hounshell wrote in a 2003 essay published last year in the journal History and Technology. Each of these sudden shocks was a windfall to science because they triggered massive federal funding of research; but he also warns that these events conjure “opportunists” with private-enterprise or political agendas.

UC Berkeley’s Laura Nader has also written of the Cold War spending spree that followed the Sputnik launch — research that tapped fellow anthropologists to work on nation-building and counterinsurgency projects in Latin America and Southeast Asia with names like Camelot, Simpatico and Colony. One laudable response to Sputnik was the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which, among other things, appropriated federal funds for universities to increase foreign-language and “area studies” programs — programs that would enable Americans to understand and interact with parts of the world with which they traditionally had little contact.

Today, a part of that initiative, now called Title VI of the Higher Education Act, has been turned into a political punching bag by hard-right ideologues cashing in on 9/11 paranoia. Last October, egged on by Middle East Quarterly editor Martin Kramer, the Hoover Institution’s Stanley Kurtz and, from a discreet distance, Campus Watch’s Daniel Pipes, Congress passed HR 3077, the International Studies in Higher Education Act, which is now before the Senate.

The bill has two features that scare people who actually work in language and international-studies programs. The first is the creation of a politically appointed, seven-member advisory committee, two of whom would come from government security organizations such as the DHS. The other is the measure’s call to identify and cultivate immigrant communities “critical to the national security of the United States.” This last component supposedly arose in response to the scarceness of Arabic speakers in America’s armed forces and intelligence organizations. (Even though the Army’s Defense Language Institute in Monterey saw fit to fire 37 gay linguists, including several Arabic speakers, after 9/11.)

It is the advisory board, however, that causes the most concern on campuses, although the bill’s proponents point out that the panel would not supervise curricula or other aspects of teaching. What clearly prompted the ire of Messrs. Kurtz, Kramer and Pipes is the lingering shadow of the late literary scholar Edward Said, whom they blame for what they see as an anti-American tinge to Middle East–studies departments and centers. Under the proposed legislation, if an institution refuses to be “advised” by the proposed board, it would lose its share of the $80 million that Title VI will distribute to foreign-language and international-studies departments this year.

“Those people are the new McCarthyites,” Laura Nader told the Weekly. “They’re extremely dangerous because they’re saying we should be ignorant of our enemies. It’s shameful that Kurtz is an anthropologist.”

Gil Merkx, vice provost for international affairs at Duke University, has been a point man in the academy’s efforts to stop the act. He notes that attacks on Title VI are hardly new — both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan tried to kill the program because of academic criticism of their respective wars in Vietnam and Central America, even though no area-studies department ever takes an editorial stance on policy issues. Nixon did get an advisory board to oversee Title VI, but seats on it soon became political patronage gifts.

“One member from Texas owned a costume company that made cheerleader costumes,” Merkx told the Weekly. “The board became an ineffectual excuse to fly presidential donors to Washington, and the first President Bush quietly dropped it.”

The proposed new board would be a much more serious affair.

“The board would be authorized to utilize security agencies,” Merkx said. “It could collect and initiate FBI and CIA information and intelligence gathering on faculty, it could hold hearings and investigate grantees’ political activities.”

Merkx said he was attacked by Pipes’ Sharonist Campus Watch Web site after he testified in Congress against HR 3077.

“This legislation’s supporters are anxious to get on this board and drive agendas because they want a pro-Israeli, Likud perspective reflected in every program. The bill says that area studies departments must reflect the full range of perspectives on issues, but no department has those kinds of resources — it would be like requiring every biology department to teach creation theory. No university would accept such funding.”

The changes to Title VI were not, it should be pointed out, initiated by DHS, and the proposed International Studies Act is but part of a national push by the right to create “balanced faculties” through affirmative-action programs that would set aside quotas at universities for conservative professors. However, it’s a measure of the department’s stature that all discussion about the act refers to DHS members as possible, if not probable, candidates to fulfill the security faction of the advisory board.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks traumatized an America that had long felt apart from international politics and impervious to the violence that plagues much of the rest of the world. Suddenly, it seemed, death might come hurtling from the sky at any moment. “Every landmark,” The New York Times noted, “— the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty — looks as though it could be molded not with concrete but with marzipan.” Even if George W. Bush were to be turned out of office in November, the Department of Homeland Security is here to stay. It is already too big and too self-perpetuating to go away, and every day its presence on American campuses grows. The Cold War showed how even hard-science research is affected by political climate, and, of course, the Bush White House has displayed a whimsical attitude in selecting which science is “real” and which is “pagan” when it comes to matters like global warming and birth control. The impulse to return to the time before 9/11 is natural, but Homeland Security’s new role in shaping academic life is leaving behind a peculiar taste, and it isn’t marzipan.