The CIA is Back on Campus


The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present–and is gravely to be regarded.

Dwight D. Eisenhower 1

The aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack has reignited a longstanding debate about whether academics should work for the intelligence services, especially the CIA. In the new atmosphere of patriotic commitment, American academics have been called upon to serve in the war against terrorism–especially by serving as consultants to the Agency. In this article I will argue against collaboration between universities and intelligence agencies; and I will show that the practice is incompatible with reasonable academic norms, especially in the social sciences.

The new collaboration between academics and the intelligence agencies has elicited little debate or negative comment. On the contrary, such collaboration has been endorsed across the ideological spectrum. In November 2002, the liberal American Prospect published an article by Chris Mooney entitled: “Good Company: Its Time for Academics and the CIA to Work Together. Again.”2 To the best of my knowledge, there has been no extended response to the Mooney article in The American Prospect or in any other publication.

While pundits never tire of the cliché that American universities are dominated by leftist faculty, who are hostile toward the objectives of established foreign policies, the reality is altogether different: The CIA has become “a growing force on campus,” according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. The “Agency finds it needs experts from academia, and colleges pressed for cash like the revenue.” Longstanding academic inhibitions about being publicly associated with the CIA have largely disappeared: In 2002, former CIA Director Robert Gates became president of Texas A & M University, while the new president of Arizona State University, Michael Crow was vice-chairman of the Agency’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel Inc. Current CIA Director George Tenet delivered the commencement address at the Rochester Institute of Technology.3 The CIA has created a special scholarship program, for graduate students able and willing to obtain security clearances. According to the London Guardian, “the primary purpose of the program is to promote disciplines that would be of use to intelligence agencies.”4 And throughout the country, academics in several disciplines are undertaking research (often secret) for the CIA.

To be sure, such consultation has a long history, extending back to the beginning of the Cold War. During the 1950s, the CIA and military intelligence were among the main sources of funding for the social sciences, having supported such institutions as the Columbia’s Russian Research Institute, Harvard’s Russian Research Center, and MIT’s Center for International Studies. Outside the campus setting, major research foundations, including the Ford Foundation and the Asia Foundation, were closely integrated with the Agency. The field of political communications was transformed during the early Cold War by large-scale U.S. government funding, in which leading academics helped intelligence agencies to develop modern techniques of propaganda and psychological warfare.

Research on Third World development and counterinsurgency techniques were other fruitful areas of investigation.5 The field of political science appears to have been at the forefront of such CIA collaboration, and some of the resulting activities strained the limits of academic propriety. Noam Chomsky provides the following recollection of his experiences at MIT:

Around 1960, the Political Science Department separated off from the Economics Department. And at that time it was openly funded by the CIA; it was not even a secret… In the mid-1960s, it stopped being publicly funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, but it was still directly involved in activities that were scandalous. The Political Science Department was so far as I know the only department on campus which had closed, secret seminars. I was once invited to talk to one, which is how I learned about it. They had a villa in Saigon where students were working on pacification projects for their doctoral dissertations.6

In a carrot and stick strategy, these activities were combined with rigorous scrutiny of dissident professors and, in the words of historian Bruce Cumings: “It is only a bit of an exaggeration to say that for those scholars studying enemy countries, either they consulted with the government or they risked being investigated by the FBI.”7 The CIA also developed remarkably close ties to the field of journalism and, during the period 1947-77, some 400 American journalists “secretly carried out assignments” for the Agency, according to a classic investigative study by Carl Bernstein. Some 200 of these journalists signed secrecy agreements or employment contracts with the CIA. “By far the most valuable of these associations, according to CIA officials, have been with the New York Times, CBS, and Time Inc.”8 Overseas, U.S. intelligence officers funded academics and writers through a series of front organizations and publications, coordinated by the CIA-controlled Congress for Cultural Freedom.

During the 1970s, CIA-academic ties suffered a blow, in light of the general atmosphere of skepticism toward U.S. foreign policy associated with the Vietnam war and the massive student-led opposition to that war. The Agency’s image also was damaged during hearings by a special U.S. Senate committee, chaired by Senator Frank Church, in 1975. The “Church Committee,” as it was known, revealed extensive CIA misdeeds, such as efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba, as well as extensive Agency involvement in the overthrow of President Salvador Allende in Chile. For an extended period, any academic association with the Agency was viewed as odious. In reality, the academic-CIA association was not really terminated, but was carried on with greater discretion.

During the late 1990s (even before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon), the CIA made a special effort to increase its influence in the academy. A November 2000 article in Lingua Franca states that since 1996, the CIA has made public outreach a “top priority and targets academia in particular. According to experts on U.S. intelligence, the strategy has worked.” The article notes that highly regarded academics–including Columbia’s Robert Jervis, recent president of the American Political Science Association and Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye–worked for the CIA. Yale’s H. Bradford Westerfield also states: “There’s a great deal of actually open consultation and there’s a lot more semi-open, broadly acknowledged consultation.”9 The pace of collaboration accelerated after September 11.

So what is the objection? The first problem is that in a democratic society, academia is supposed to have a measure of independence from the state. Professors, especially in the social sciences must be able to present critical analyses of official policy; close relationships with the intelligence services severely compromise the potential for such criticism.

And second problem is the CIA’s unsavory history. One of the major functions of the Agency has been covert operations, which includes such practices as the overthrow of governments, assassination of foreign leaders, and involvement in massive human rights abuses. One well-documented example of covert operations was the 1965 coup in Indonesia, in which the CIA helped overthrow a left-leaning, neutralist government, led by Sukarno, a major figure in the non-aligned movement. The Indonesian case was one of the major acts of mass killing during the Cold War era–substantially larger than those that occurred in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo–though it is largely a forgotten event.

During and shortly after this coup, there was a massive reign of terror against the Indonesian Communist Party, left-wing organizations, and the families and friends of leftist figures. Estimates of the death toll have ranged from 250,000 to 1,000,000. In 1984, long after the events took place, former CIA officer Ralph McGehee stated: “The CIA prepared a study of the 1965 Indonesian operation that described what the Agency did there. I happened to have been custodian of that study for a time, and I know the specific steps the Agency took to create the conditions that led to the massacre of at least half a million Indonesians.” 10 More recent information, published in 1990, revealed that CIA and U.S. embassy officials in Jakarta helped draw up a “hit list” of Indonesians targeted for elimination, and passed on this information to the Indonesian military, a point that former US officials have openly admitted. One U.S. diplomat, associated with the covert program, said the hit list was necessary during the Cold War: “I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad.”11

The CIA also conducted some rather unpleasant operations within the United States. We are all familiar with the extensive repression that characterized communist states during and even after the Cold War, including the abuse of the psychiatric profession to punish dissidents.

Unfortunately, the United States engaged in activities that were just as shocking, and the CIA was one of the principal perpetrators. Consider MKULTRA, a CIA operation during the 1950s and 1960s, which used patients in psychiatric hospitals and other unwitting subjects to develop mind control techniques. This vast operation–authorized by CIA Director Allen Dulles–was vast in scope and entailed research at dozens of universities, hospitals, and other institutions in the United States, and also in Canada. Some of the most distinguished figures in psychiatry participated in MKULTRA, including the Ewan Cameron, who served as president of the American Psychiatric Association.

In one set of experiments, test subjects were administered electro-convulsive treatments at levels that exceeded the normal therapeutic parameters. Other experiments involved sensory deprivation, continual playing of recorded voices, and a variety of drugs including (most famously) LSD. Sometimes, these techniques were used in combination. The experiments often reduced test subjects to such degenerated states that they became semi-comatose, losing the ability to eat, walk, or relieve themselves without assistance. Many experiments were done without anything that could be called informed consent and without the test subjects having any real understanding of what was taking place. The intent was to break down the test subjects’ resistance through massive over-stimulation, in order to make them more pliable; these activities were to yield new techniques of interrogation for CIA and military field operatives. There is also evidence that the Agency sought the means to “program” people to perform special tasks, such as assassination. (It is surely ironic that during the time that the CIA was undertaking these experiments, the 1963 movie The Manchurian Candidate provided a fictionalized account of such experiments; in the movie the perpetrator of these crimes was not the CIA, but our Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union.)

These bizarre activities produced little of real value to the Agency. However they did cause brain damage and serious personality disorders in some test subjects. The full details of MKULTRA may never be known since the CIA (understandably enough) destroyed most of its documents pertaining to the operation.12

But why focus on the distant past? Covert operations have a contemporary significance. As this article is being written, the United States is pursuing a war with the Baathist regime headed by Saddam Hussein in Iraq. This enemy is at least partly the product of past covert operations: In a series of coups in 1963 and 1968, the CIA helped the Baathists consolidate power. British journalists Andrew and Patrick Cockburn provide this account of the 1963 takeover:

it was the CIA’s favorite coup. “We really had the t’s crossed on what was happening,” James Critchfield, then head of the CIA in the Middle East told us. “We regarded it as a great victory.” Iraqi participants later confirmed American involvement. “We came to power on a CIA train,” admitted Ali Saleh Sa’adi, the Baath Party general secretary, who was about to institute an unprecedented reign of terror.13

Former National Security Council staffer Roger Morris also notes CIA complicity in the Baath Party’s earliest acts of violence in 1963: “Using lists of suspected Communists and other leftists provided by the CIA, the Baathists systematically murdered untold numbers.”14 The takeover led to the rapid assent of Hussein himself, who seized full power in a later coup.

A significant number of the enemies the United States now faces constitute “blowback” (as Chalmers Johnson has argued) from past CIA operations. Osama bin Laden was according to Le Monde “recruited by the CIA in 1979” to assist in the Jihad against communism in Afghanistan. During the 1980s, Bin Laden worked along the Pakistani frontier with Afghanistan, where he helped funnel aid to the Mujahiddin guerrillas who were battling the Soviets and Afghan communists. Jane’s Intelligence Review notes that Bin Laden “worked in close association with U.S. agents.” Bin Laden also is known to have worked closely with Gulbadin Hekmatyar, who as also the CIA’s most favored Mujahiddin commander. In raising money for the guerrillas, Bin Laden used the Bank for Credit and Commerce International–which was also the bank that the CIA used to finance many of its covert operations.15

It is also very likely that Al Qaeda contains personnel who had previously received CIA-furnished training, support, and armaments–which include surface to air missiles. These missiles were openly and publicly supplied to the guerrillas; this was not even covert.

In light of the recent fears regarding anti-aircraft missiles and the associated dangers posed to civil aviation, it is worth recalling the following exchange that appeared on Cable News Network (CNN) in 1994, between Peter Arnett and Brigadier General Mohammed Yousaf (retired) of the Pakistani military:

Arnett: Another legacy of the war — the Stinger missiles given to the Afghan resistance by the CIA. The world’s most effective anti-aircraft missile, the Stinger turned the tide of the war against the Soviets. It can also bring down a commercial airliner?

Gen. Yousaf: Certainly. It can bring down any airliner.16

Not only did the Agency fail to prevent the September 11 attacks; on the contrary, it helped to create the perpetrators of these attacks. It may also have furnished the necessary training and equipment for new attacks.

One of the most common justifications for academic collaboration with the CIA is the terrorist danger. An augmented role for the Agency is seen as part of the solution to this problem, and this point is frequently cited. One faculty member at the Rochester Institute of Technology recently defended collaboration this way: “by and large, these CIA guys are people whose primary goal is to keep the rest of us safe.”17 Such attitudes seem extraordinarily naïve, given the Agency’s past support for Bin Laden and the Baath Party of Iraq.

The fact that the CIA has a considerable amount of blood on its hands is a sufficient reason that academics should not become involved with its activities. There are additional reasons as well. The CIA engages in propaganda practices that are fundamentally incompatible with academic norms of objective analysis. It is true that all government agencies engage in public relations and propaganda to some degree, but there is a key distinction here: The CIA is an espionage agency, and disseminating propaganda is one of its central functions. The Agency’s output in this area has indeed been prodigious. According to U.S. Senate document, “Well over a thousand books were produced, subsidized, or sponsored by the CIA before the end of 1967.” In some cases, the CIA simply provided financial support toward a book’s publication (often without the author’s knowledge); in others, Agency personnel worked directly with the author and influenced the actual content of the book. In the latter cases, the CIA sought to control the author to a considerable degree. According to an Agency propaganda specialist, the CIA wished to “make sure the actual manuscript will correspond with our operational and propagandistic intentions.”18

The CIA has never released a title list of the one thousand (or more) books it helped to publish, in its elaborate propaganda efforts. However, there can be no doubt that academics participated in some of these CIA publishing activities. In addition, there is the problem of self censorship: During the 1950s, a common practice at MIT’s Center for International Studies was for researchers to publish a classified study on a specific topic, and then to publish a “sanitized” version of the same study, as a regular academic book study for public use.19 To the best of my knowledge, the book publications that resulted from this process never acknowledged CIA support, nor did they acknowledge that the publication had omitted information.

Particularly troubling is the CIA’s use of “black” propaganda, a common intelligence practice in which deliberately false information is released, and the true origin of the disinformation is obscured. One example of black propaganda is The Penkovsky Papers, a 1965 book that purported to be the published diary of a Soviet military officer. The book portrayed the Soviet system in general and the Soviet intelligence services in particular in a most unflattering light. As it turns out, the CIA actually wrote the book. Former CIA officer Victor Marchetti wrote: “The Penkovsky Papers was a phony story. We wrote the book in the CIA.”20 More recently, the CIA helped coordinate a massive black propaganda operation during the 1980s, to influence U.S. and world opinion against the Nicaraguan government and other adversaries in Central America.21 Overall, the propaganda activities of the CIA, which are part of its normal operations, are contrary to and deeply corrosive of some of the most basic standards of academic integrity.

Another problem with the Agency is its extreme secretiveness and lack of public accountability. Contrary to popular misperceptions, this proclivity toward secrecy has not changed substantially with the end of the Cold War. Efforts by researchers to obtain documentation on covert operations have largely been unavailing, even for operations that occurred many decades ago. In 1997, University of Kentucky historian George C. Herring wrote a caustic account of his experiences as a member of the CIA’s Historical Advisory Committee, which is supposed to provide independent advice and supervision for the Agency’s declassification activities. Herring viewed his role this way: “Now I’m from Kentucky, and I’m not supposed to be swift, but it didn’t take too long even for me to realize that I was being used to cover the Agency’s ass while having no influence.”22 The Agency’s unwillingness to release information suggests that it has a great deal to hide. And of course, recent changes associated with the war on terrorism will increase secrecy even further.

This secretiveness extends to the CIA’s involvement with the academy. Consider the Agency’s Officer in Residence Program, which sends intelligence officers to teach at selected universities for a semester or two. The Agency likes to say that this program is completely public and open: “there is nothing clandestine about an officer’s assignment as a visiting faculty member,” according to a CIA description of the program.23 Yet, when a researcher filed a Freedom of Information Act letter, asking for a list of participants in the program, the universities with which they were affiliated, and the dates of affiliation, the request was denied.24

Overall, the Agency’s secretiveness is unsurprising. Covert operations have enabled the United States to undertake “dirty” actions that advance specified policy objectives, without the need to pay the price, in terms of loss of face. Fortunately, secrecy efforts are not always successful, and we have excellent documentation pertaining to dozens of these operations, based on such sources as Senate hearings, investigative reports in the New York Times and other papers, and memoirs and public statements by retired intelligence officers. Nevertheless, it is clear that the CIA still has much to hide. And the continuing proclivity toward secrecy poses a special problem for scholarship, which is supposed to be committed to open inquiry and research.

A final danger is that academic collaboration with the CIA will present a conflict of interest, and this danger is especially serious for social scientists who specialize in the study of international relations. The CIA is after all a major player in many of the international conflicts that social scientists must study. Working for the CIA–especially if it is done clandestinely–can compromise researchers’ independence. This objective was recently suggested by CIA official John Phillips, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. His choice of words is revealing: “We don’t want to turn [academics] into spies… We want to capture them intellectually.”25 Phillips’ comments referred to academics in the “hard” sciences, but there is no reason to assume that the Agency’s objectives are any different in the social sciences.

The possibility that academics have been intellectually captured by an agency of the state is disturbing. However, this process was well established during the Cold War. Consider the case of Professor Conyers Reed, who served as president of the American Historical Association. In his 1949 presidential address, Professor Reed made the following statements:

Discipline is the essential prerequisite of every effective army whether it marches under the Stars and Stripes or under the Hammer and Sickle… Total war, whether it be hot or cold, enlists everyone and calls upon everyone to assume his part. The historian is no freer from this obligation than the physicist… This sounds like the advocacy of one form of social control as against another. In short, it is.26

The attitudes expressed above are surely remarkable for a prominent academic working in a democratic society.

Recent work in political science has been remarkably flattering to the CIA, since it omits virtually any mention of the Agency’s most controversial activities. I surveyed the five top journals in political science that specialize in international relations during the period 1991-2000.27 I did not find a single article in any of these journals that focused on CIA covert operations. Mentions of covert operations were very rare and, when they occurred at all, they were confined to a few sentences or a footnote. In effect, an entire category of international conduct has been expunged from the record, as if it never occurred.

Political science’s neglect of covert operations is also evident in many of the datasets that are used as the raw material for research. Consider for example the Militarized Interstate Disputes (MIDs) dataset, which compiles quantitative information on international conflicts throughout recent history, and is one of the most widely used datasets in political science. The MIDs dataset contains an exhaustive catalogue of conventional wars and military conflicts (many of which were relatively minor). Yet there is virtually no mention of CIA covert operations. True, the MIDs database defines conflict in a way that rules out most covert operations.28 This would not in itself be a problem, if there were some other standard dataset that did include a significant number of covert operations. The problem is that such a dataset does not exist (or if such a dataset does exist, it has elicited no notice in the top journals). The resulting scholarship can be summarized as an extended exercise in selection bias, because it omits covert operations, which constitute a major category of international conflict. This selection bias is far from innocuous; it virtually guarantees that U.S. actions will appear in a more favorable light.29

There are of course counter-arguments to be considered. One objection, offered by Robert Jervis, is that political science has avoided covert operations because there is so little public information on the topic.30 This is not a valid objection. As seen above, the Indonesia and Iraq operations have been admitted by former CIA officers and diplomats, in public statements. The CIA’s involvement in the 1973 overthrow of the Allende government has been documented at length in a U.S. Senate report. The Agency’s involvement in the 1953 coup against the Mossadegh government in Iran was officially acknowledged by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. And there are many other equally well-documented cases.31 Political science’s neglect of covert operations is certainly not the result of a lack of source material. The problem is that political scientists have ignored source material pertaining to covert operations.

During the Cold War, a major objection to the social systems of the Soviet Union and its allies was that the universities lacked independence from government doctrine, and that social scientists in those countries acted as mere adjuncts to the propaganda, intelligence, and security agencies of the state. Such practices resulted in a lack of internal criticism of state policy. Let us hope that American academics can hold themselves to higher standards than this–and will avoid classified work for the CIA and other intelligence services.

DAVID N. GIBBS is Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Arizona. He can be reached at

1 Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Farewell Address,” January 17, 1961.

2 Chris Mooney, “Good Company: It’s Time for the CIA and Scholars to Work Together. Again,” The American Prospect, November 2002.

3 Daniel Golden, “After Sept. 11, the CIA Becomes A Force on Campus,” Wall Street Journal, October 4, 2002.

4 “Spooky Scholarships,” London Guardian, December 17, 2002.

5 Irene Gendzier, “Play it Again Sam: The Practice and Apology of Development,” in Christopher Simpson, ed., Universities and Empire (New York: New Press, 1998).

6 Noam Chomsky, “The Cold War and the University,” in David Montgomery, ed, The Cold War and the University (New York: New Press, 1997), 181. Note that Chomsky adds: “Certainly, nothing like that is true now [regarding the MIT Political Science Department]; it is a much more open department.”

7 Bruce Cumings, “Boundary Displacement: Area Studies and International Studies During and After the Cold War,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 29, no. 1, 1997.

8 Carl Bernstein, “The CIA and the Media,” Rolling Stone, October 20, 1977.

9 Chris Mooney, “For Your Eyes Only: The CIA Will Let You See Classified Documents–But at What Price?” Lingua Franca, November 2000.

10 Quoted in “Should the CIA Fight Secret Wars?” Harpers, September 1984.

11 Quoted in Christopher Reed, “U.S. Agents ‘Drew up Indonesian Hit List,'” London Guardian, May 22, 1990.

12 Harvey Weinstein, Psychiatry and the CIA (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1990); and Elizabeth Nickson, “Mind Control,” London Observer, October 16, 1994.

13 Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn, Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein (New York: Harper, 1999), 74-75. Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the London Financial Times and the London Independent.

14 Quoted in Roger Morris, “A Tyrant 40 Years in the Making,” New York Times, March 14, 2003.

15 I have discussed these matters at length in DAVID N. GIBBS, “Forgotten Coverage of Afghan ‘Freedom Fighters’: The Villains of Today’s News were Heroes in the ’80s,” Extra, January/February 2002.

16 See CNN, “Terror Nation, U.S. Creation?” five part series on Afghanistan, Transcripts 373-1 through 373-5, August 21, 1994. The quoted portion is taken from sections 373-4. Print versions available through Lexis-Nexis.

17 Quoted in Daniel Golden, Wall Street Journal, 2002, above.

18 Both quotes from U.S. Senate, Foreign and Military Intelligence, Book I (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976), 193.

19 Christopher Simpson, Science of Coercion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 82.

20 Quoted from “An Ex-CIA Official Speaks Out: An Interview with Victor Marchetti by Greg Kaza,” 1986. I telephoned Marchetti and confirmed the authenticity of this interview. See also discussion in Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence (New York: Dell, 1980), 161-62.

21 Robert Parry and Peter Kornbluh, “Reagan’s Pro-Contra Propaganda Machine,” Washington Post, September 4, 1988.

22 George C. Herring, “My Years with the CIA,” transcript of speech at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, 1997.

23 Quoted in Jon Elliston, “CIA’s Man on Campus,” Durham Independent, November 29, 2000.

24 Mooney, American Prospect, 2002, above. The FOIA request was made by Daniel Brandt of Public Information Research Inc. A scanned copy of the FOIA letter is available online.

25 Quoted in Daniel Golden, Wall Street Journal, 2002, above.

26 Conyers Reed, “The Social Obligations of the Historian,” American Historical Review 55, no. 2, 1950, 283-85. There is no specific evidence that Conyers actually consulted for the military or the CIA. However, the opinions expressed in the narrative do elucidate the general phenomenon of the “captured” intellectual.

27 The journals were: World Politics, International Organization, International Security, Journal of Conflict Resolution, and International Studies Quarterly.

28 Daniel Jones, Stuart Bremer and J. David Singer, “Militarized Interstate Disputes, 1816-1992: Rationale, Coding Rules, and Empirical Patterns,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 15, no. 2, 1996, 169-70.

29 For further discussion of this problem see: DAVID N. GIBBS, “Social Science as Propaganda? International Relations and the Question of Political Bias,” International Studies Perspectives 2, no. 4, 2001. See also Peter Monaghan, “Does International Relations Scholarship Reflect a Bias toward the U.S.?” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 24, 1999.

30 This statement was made in a radio debate between me and Robert Jervis on the radio program Democracy Now, November 13, 2002.

31 Probably the best general account of covert operations is in William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1995). Well documented with extensive references.