Iconoclast: Contrarian Musings on Global Affairs

Problems of Perspective: The Intelligence Community and American Academia

June 8, 2014




Thirteen years after Sept. 11, 2001 the United States still rightly prioritizes the development of new cadres for the intelligence community. This emphasis is not just logical because of the continued threat of terrorism but also makes sense when considering demographics: the oncoming retirement of the baby boom generation requires that new talent take its place. Developing that new talent, however, has not been as easy as US officials wish. There are at least three problems plaguing both the academic and intelligence communities that illustrate a perception challenge in the United States. Failure to overcome these problems will result in a failure to produce the necessary professionals and could compromise American national security for generations to come.



Problem 1: A Tradition of Suspicion



The relationship between academia and the intelligence community (IC) has always been problematic. This awkwardness is partly explained by a long-existing tension between traditionally liberal faculty and its perception of IC activities. History, political science, and government departments, for example, have long been suspicious of not just what IC agencies do on the global stage, but they are also deeply concerned by the methods supposedly used to pursue such activities. To this day, for example, the CIA very carefully vets a campus visit to ensure there is limited fanfare or at least very targeted (no pun intended) marketing to campus groups who would receive such a visit in a positive manner. This greatly limits open visitation by the US intelligence community to college campuses because there is a general disdain within the community for what it sees as an openly-encouraged atmosphere of animosity towards intelligence by faculty.



While some of this tension is simple partisanship, it cannot be exclusively dismissed based on whether a campus is basically conservative or liberal in the American sense. There is legitimate intellectual debate over whether the study of intelligence and national security should be held within a liberal arts institution, for example, or whether the study of all things covert, opaque, and restricted (which is by default the nature of the world of intelligence) should be taught to students who are meant to cherish openness, transparency, and liberty (the founding principles of the American higher education system). Solving that debate is not possible here, but its consequences are significant: there are still very few tightly focused and rigorously structured degree programs devoted to intelligence and national security. Instead one finds individual smatterings of courses loosely connected to national security issues. This is too limited and too shallow to meet future needs and leaves the American IC either under-staffed or poorly developed in terms of personnel expertise.  



Problem 2: Brainwashing a Curse into a Blessing



When reading through the vast employment literature from the IC one thing becomes abundantly clear: it wants new talent from greatly diverse academic backgrounds. This makes sense when one harkens to a time when no universities were attempting to develop degree programs exclusively focused on intelligence and national security. The problem today is that certain IC circles remain adamant that diverse degree backgrounds are not just essential but exclusively desirable, since intelligence/national security degrees might be too limiting or too myopic. But this is false, egregiously so. The IC has succeeded over the decades in taking a negative (academic departments unwilling to extensively teach intelligence and national security) and brainwashing itself into a positive spin (the IC does not need subject matter specific programs at all!). If this were truly so, then the IC’s number one need from new applicants would not be basic analytical, critical reasoning, writing, and presentation skills oriented to intelligence and national security. These skills are lacking, even from talented graduates of prestigious universities in America, because such degree diversity has no direct connection to IC needs, methods, thinking, and formulation. While the IC can justify favoring talented applicants over political science graduates, for example, who have a few national security courses, purposely de-emphasizing rigorous programs producing graduates trained for a career in national security is dangerously blinkered, short-sighted, and unwise.



Problem 3: The Limitation of ‘Professional’ Faculty



A subgroup of institutions known as military-friendly schools has long specialized in programs catering to IC interests. While not trying to disparage these schools, a major problem has been their tendency to too heavily favor adjunct professional faculty. This means they are usually retired IC professionals who have not undergone the rigorous academic training innate to the conclusion and receipt of a terminal degree (PhD). There can be no doubt that real-world experience adds depth and detail to a program. However, the impact is negative when a program is dominated by adjunct or part-time professionals. The reason for this is that critical thinking skills are quintessentially academic and are best taught by terminally-degreed, full-time faculty dedicated to the cause and highly-trained not only on understanding such methods and skills but adept and experienced in how to teach these attributes to young and eager minds. As more schools have tried to develop intelligence and national security programs they are poaching retired IC professionals to fill their programs with adjunct, part-time faculty. Degree programs infused with professionals but not backboned by trained academics lessen the impact of professional experience. Instead of discipline-rich and theoretically-rigorous applicability, programs are left with a decidedly anecdotal and conversational feel. The courses in such programs are undoubtedly interesting (listening to old war-stories from former warriors who had been in the field cannot help but be fascinating) but the real question to ask how much does such story-telling truly prepare graduates for future careers? My suspicion is they do not.



The three problems of suspicion, brainwashing and professional faculty are not insurmountable. They serve as a roadmap for the proper development of new programs, where universities and the IC work in harmony for the goal of creating talented young cadres while never settling for anything less than the highest academic rigor and pedagogical significance. Improving this situation is not an impossible task. It requires national security and intelligence professionals willing to rethink their preconceived perceptions and academics willing to give up their preconceived biases. Around the world many other countries have already surmounted these issues, where there are more direct academic-intelligence pipelines established. This is not the only path possible to address these issues, but not addressing them at all or addressing them half-heartedly likely means the United States will continue to have intelligence failures and/or intelligence deficiencies.

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