Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities by Daniel Golden. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2017.
The phrase the Great Game has historic roots in the nineteenth-century competition between the British and Russian empires and was popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his great spy novel, Kim. Today, the phrase has come to mean the search for political, economic, or military advantage through espionage. Daniel Golden, a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist, has taken on the Herculean task of documenting the Great Game currently afoot on American campuses. He concludes that “U.S. intelligence today touches virtually every facet of academic life.”
Golden’s universe is vast: it includes small colleges, public and private universities, and American overseas campuses as well as affiliated laboratories, centers, institutes, and special programs. His topics include the recruitment of spies, foreign and domestic; theft of American intellectual property, especially of cutting-edge technology and military-related research; cyberspying; the covert use of third-party brokers to fund academic programs and overseas conferences; the sale of American secrets to third parties; and the presence of American covert agents in the classroom, often with the knowledge and acquiescence of campus administrators. His global sweep includes both foreign and American spy activity.
Golden had the unenviable task of imposing a narrative structure on all this material. He chose to place at least one in-depth example at the heart of each chapter to illustrate why we should be concerned. In “The Cloak of Invisibility,” we learn how a Chinese national, Ruopeng Liu, enrolled as a graduate student at Duke University, where he gained access to advanced stealth (metamaterials) technology. Liu subsequently used faculty exchanges, photography, and other methods to replicate the Duke laboratory in China, where he patented or commercialized its applications, becoming a billionaire in the process, all the while claiming his success was due exclusively to his talent. Intellectual property theft, writes Golden, is rampant, and often facilitated by casual administration attitudes, faculty naiveté, and the absence of faculty training in intellectual property law.
Golden’s approach has the virtue of taking the reader deep inside individual stories. While he is careful to embed them in larger data sets—noting, for example, that foreign students dominate the US computer field (where they comprise more than 50 percent of the students) and electrical engineering (where they receive 70 percent of the degrees granted)— readers are left to assess the size of the overall problem by inference or extrapolation. It would be difficult for anyone to gauge its magnitude, given the covert nature of many activities. Golden is cautious not to overstate his case or sensationalize his examples.
Golden examines the convoluted case of Dajin Peng, director of the Confucius Institute at the University of South Florida. When Peng was a graduate student at Princeton University, he had been helpful to American intelligence, and the FBI expected his continued cooperation once he was at the University of South Florida. Peng insists that when he didn’t meet the FBI’s escalating demands and threats, the agency conspired with top university officials to punish him. Whether Peng’s version of events is accepted or not, one of the many troubling aspects of his case is the fact that the FBI claimed its email correspondence with top USF officials was classified and not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Is Peng’s case an isolated example? Golden notes that the Chinese (read: state security) have spent more than a billion dollars to fully fund 109 Confucius Institutes on American college campuses and 347 Confucius classrooms for elementary and secondary school students. One candid administrator said of the Chinese, “They’re the ATM machine.” It is an inference, albeit a logical one, that such institutes are a lure for both Chinese and American intelligence. (As I was finishing this review, a report by the National Association of Scholars warned of extensive Chinese influence operations in the United States targeting think tanks and universities, citing the Confucius Institutes by name.)
While Spy Schools is occasionally thin on historical context, Golden highlights a missed opportunity to secure a boundary (build a wall?) between academic freedom and national security. In the wake of the 1967 exposure of and outcry over CIA covert operations within the United States, President Lyndon Johnson prohibited future CIA activities in higher education. A few years later, in 1975, Congress explored these Cold War operations and issued detailed reports on their abuse. Harvard University president Derek Bok, among those disturbed by the incursions on campus, worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to establish standards that would curtail future classified and covert activities. A critical decision made at the time that such principles should be adopted on a campus-by-campus basis proved fatal to their adoption. In any event, the CIA simply ignored them.
The consequences of this historic failure are driven home in the second half of the book. By the early 1980s, the CIA began nibbling at the boundaries of academia. CIA recruiters returned to campus, and CIA analysts openly entered its classrooms. Covert activities soon followed. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks strengthened the notion that faculty and administrators had a patriotic duty to cooperate with the CIA or the FBI. Golden notes, correctly in my view, that overt activities often provide cover for covert ones. I would go further based on my own work: covert activities often depend on overt ones and work best in decentralized institutions. Universities offer ideal venues, since no one polices the thousands of interactions that take place between faculty and students, or between administrators and the US government.
US intelligence agencies offer blandishments and resources to campuses that proponents of academic freedom lack. Cashstarved universities eagerly apply for new centers, institutes, chairs, and research grants. Individual faculty and students always need funding, whether for fellowships or tuition costs. And, as any student of CIA largess during the Cold War knows, patriotism, however ardent or genuine, coexists comfortably with self-interest, career ambition, overseas travel, and first-rate hotels. The net effect of the larger war on terrorism has been a windfall for American campuses.
The flow of new resources has been critically aided by the return, in intelligence jargon, of cutouts, third-party brokers who disguise the hand of US intelligence—the definition of covert action. These brokers now underwrite hundreds of conferences and other events. Individual faculty members who know the true source of funds (or conference agendas), writes Golden, are often grateful for the résumé protection such brokers afford. Unwitting participants might be less enthusiastic about becoming pawns in the Great Game. Golden describes, for example, a conference held in Turkey near the Iranian border whose primary purpose was to persuade an Iranian scientist to defect. Is it any wonder that hostile foreign powers find the overseas activities of American academics suspect?
The renewed presence of the CIA or the FBI on campus has also been facilitated by the open arms of many top university officials, a “neon sign,” writes Golden. Covert CIA agents now attend the midcareer program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and other programs, their identity (usually) known to a few administrators but not to their classmates. The president of Pennsylvania State University, for example, opened the doors to his campus so wide that he was later chauffeured to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and awarded a medal for his cooperation.
I would like to think that, given the scope and complexity of Golden’s work, Spy Schools might spark a cottage industry of further research. But I doubt this will happen. It is not an accident that Golden is an investigative reporter and not an academic. Few faculty or graduate students are likely to see any career advantage in tangling with US intelligence, even as a research project. Not only is funding scarce and research difficult and time-consuming, but the FBI and the CIA fight some of their fiercest battles over withholding Freedom of Information Act requests. Still, Golden’s book is chock-full of cautionary tales that all academics need to take seriously.
Golden argues that in any contest between academic freedom and national security, the latter almost always wins. There is a powerful magnetism between intelligence services that need spies and universities that need resources. The only major remedy Golden offers is to resurrect a Derek Bok–like code of ethics that delineates the boundary between academic freedom and US national security interests. I suspect that is also not likely to happen, nor would it necessarily protect against foreign intelligence incursions. More likely, Kipling’s famous dictum will prevail: “When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before.”
—This review by Karen M. Paget appeared in the May-June 2018 issue of the American Association of University Professors (aaup.org)