Foreign and domestic intelligence services spar and spy on one another all across the world. But it would be naïve to think it’s not happening in the lab or classroom as well.
In his new book, Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities (Henry Holt and Company), investigative journalist Daniel Golden explores the fraught -- and sometimes exploitative -- relationship between higher education and intelligence services, both foreign and domestic. Chapters explore various case studies of the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation using the open and collaborative nature of higher education to their advantage, as well as foreign governments infiltrating the U.S. via education.
“It’s pretty widespread, and I’d say it’s most prevalent at research universities,” Golden, an editor at ProPublica and an alumnus of The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, told Inside Higher Ed. “The foreign intelligence services have the interest and the opportunity to learn cutting-edge, Pentagon-funded or government-funded research.”
Golden, who has also covered higher education for The Wall Street Journal, previously wrote about the intersection of wealth and admissions in his 2006 book The Price of Admission.
Each of the case studies in Spy Schools, which goes on sale Oct. 10, is critical. One could read the chapters on the Chinese government’s interest in U.S. research universities as hawkish, but then turn to the next chapter on Harvard’s relationship with the CIA and read it as critical of the American intelligence establishment as well.
“People of one political persuasion might focus on [the chapters regarding] foreign espionage; people of another political persuasion might focus on domestic espionage,” Golden said. “I try to follow where the facts lead.”
Perhaps the most prestigious institution Golden examines is Harvard University, probing its cozy relationship with the CIA. (While Harvard has recently come under scrutiny for its relationship with the agency after it withdrew an invitation for Chelsea Manning to be a visiting fellow -- after the agency objected to her appointment -- this book was written before the Manning incident, which occurred in September.) The university, which has had varying degrees of closeness and coldness with the CIA over the years, currently allows the agency to send officers to the midcareer program at the Kennedy School of Government while continuing to act undercover, with the school’s knowledge. When the officers apply -- often with fudged credentials that are part of their CIA cover -- the university doesn’t know they’re CIA agents, but once they’re in, Golden writes, Harvard allows them to tell the university that they’re undercover. Their fellow students, however -- often high-profile or soon-to-be-high-profile actors in the world of international diplomacy -- are kept in the dark.
“Kenneth Moskow is one of a long line of CIA officers who have enrolled undercover at the Kennedy School, generally with Harvard’s knowledge and approval, gaining access to up-and-comers worldwide,” Golden writes. “For four decades the CIA and Harvard have concealed this practice, which raises larger questions about academic boundaries, the integrity of class discussions and student interactions, and whether an American university has a responsibility to accommodate U.S. intelligence.”
But the CIA isn’t the only intelligence group operating at Harvard. Golden notes Russian spies have enrolled at the Kennedy School, although without Harvard’s knowledge or cooperation.
When contacted by Inside Higher Ed, Harvard officials didn’t deny Golden’s telling, but defended the university’s practices while emphasizing the agreement between the university and the CIA -- which Golden also writes about -- on not using Harvard to conduct CIA fieldwork.
“Harvard Kennedy School does not knowingly provide false information or ‘cover’ for any member of our community from an intelligence agency, nor do we allow members of our community to carry out intelligence operations at Harvard Kennedy School,” Eric Rosenbach, co-director of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said in a statement.
While Golden said the CIA’s involvement on campus raises existential questions about the purpose and integrity of higher education, Harvard maintained that the Kennedy School was living up to its mission.
“Our community consists of people from different spheres of public service. We are proud to train people from the U.S. government and the intelligence community, as well as peace activists and those who favor more open government,” Rosenbach said in his statement. “We train students from a wide range of foreign countries and foreign governments, including -- among others -- Israel, U.K., Russia and China. That is consistent with our mission and we are proud to have that reach.”
On the other hand, other countries are interested in exploiting U.S. higher education. Golden documents the case of Ruopeng Liu, a graduate student at Duke University who siphoned off U.S.-government-funded research to Chinese researchers. Liu eventually returned to China and has used some of the research for his Chinese-government-funded start-up ventures.
Golden is comprehensive, interviewing Duke researchers who worked with Liu, as well as dispatching a freelance journalist in China to interview Liu (he denied wrongdoing, saying his actions were taken as part of higher education's collaborative norms regarding research projects). Despite questions that arose while Liu was a student, he received his doctorate in 2009 without any formal questions or pushback from the university. A week before Liu defended his dissertation, Golden notes that Duke officials voted to move forward in negotiations with the Chinese government regarding opening a Duke campus in China -- raising questions about whether Duke was cautious about punishing a Chinese student lest there were negative business implications for Duke. (The building of the campus proved to be a controversial move in its own right.)
The Duke professor Liu worked under told Golden it would be hard to prove Liu acted with intentional malice rather than out of genuine cultural and translational obstacles, or ethical slips made by a novice researcher. Duke officials told Inside Higher Ed that there weren’t any connections between Liu and the vote.
“The awarding of Ruopeng Liu’s degree had absolutely no connection to the deliberations over the proposal for Duke to participate in the founding of a new university in Kunshan, China,” a spokesman said in an email.
These are just two chapters of Golden’s book, which also goes on to document the foreign exchange relationship between Marietta College, in Ohio, and the controversial Chinese-intelligence-aligned University of International Relations. Agreements between Marietta and UIR, which is widely regarded a recruiting ground for Chinese intelligence services, include exchanging professors and sending Chinese students to Marietta. Conversely, Golden writes, as American professors teach UIR students who could end up spying on the U.S., American students at Marietta are advised against studying abroad at UIR if they have an interest in working for the government -- studying at UIR carries a risk for students hoping to get certain security clearances. Another highlight is the chapter documenting the CIA’s efforts to stage phony international academic conferences, put on to lure Iranian nuclear scientists as attendees and get them out of their country -- and in a position to defect to the U.S. According to Golden's sources, the operations, combined with other efforts, have been successful enough “to hinder Iran's nuclear weapons program.”
But Golden’s book doesn’t just shed light on previously untold stories. It also highlights the existential questions facing higher education, not only when dealing with infiltration from foreign governments, but also those brought on by cozy relationships between the U.S. intelligence and academe.
“One issue is American national security,” Golden said. “Universities do a lot of research that’s important to our government and our military, and they don’t take very strong precautions against it being stolen,” he said. “So the domestic espionage side -- I’m kind of a traditionalist and I believe in the ideal of universities as places where the brightest minds of all countries come together to learn, teach each other, study and do research. Espionage from both sides taints that … that’s kind of disturbing.”
After diving deep into the complex web that ties higher education and espionage together, however, Golden remains optimistic about the future.
“It wouldn’t be that hard to tighten up the intellectual property rules and have written collaboration agreements and have more courses about intellectual safeguards,” he said. “In the 1970s, Harvard adopted guidelines against U.S. intelligence trying to recruit foreign students in an undercover way … they didn’t become standard practice [across academe, but], I still think those guidelines are pertinent and colleges would do well to take a second look at them.”
“In the idealistic dreamer mode, it would be wonderful if the U.N. or some other organization would take a look at this issue, and say, ‘Can we declare universities off-limits to espionage?’”