Spy University: How Intelligence Agencies Recruit Their Next Generation

CIA, FBI, and Foreign Governments Recruit Tomorrow’s Spies at US Universities

Daniel Golden, Spy Schools
Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America's Universities by Daniel Golden. Photo credit: Daniel Golden / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0) and Henry Holt and Co.
Reading Time: 17 minutes

During the Cold War, our elite universities were a breeding ground for future spies. Schools like Yale and Harvard provided some of the “best and the brightest” to America’s intelligence agencies.

Today, the CIA and FBI are using college campuses once again to gain new recruits in the global war for clandestine information and technology. These government agencies, in many instances, are working with the full support and blessing of professors and often top university administrators, who rely on both government contracts and the maximum revenue that comes from over one million international students in US universities.    

According to Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Daniel Golden, the efforts range from small colleges to large state universities to Ivy League institutions. In fact, Golden tells Jeff Schechtman in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast that Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government is one of the places where spies are most actively recruited.

In addition, foreign governments see US universities as an almost unlimited reservoir for obtaining intelligence and for recruiting vulnerable students who are in need of money, filled with innocence, and/or ideologically confused.   

Today, creative destruction has moved campus recruitment from just US efforts in the binary conflict of the Cold War to a world of high technology and spycraft that involves multiple global players, millions of foreign students and professors, and is drawing from the world’s most prestigious classrooms and research centers.

Daniel Golden is the author of Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities (Henry Colt and Co., October 10, 2017) and The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates (Broadway Books, September 25, 2007).


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman. Once upon a time at the apogee of the Cold War, the CIA recruited the best and the brightest from our most elite universities. These universities were, as someone once referred to them, a nursery of spooks. But today, like everything else, espionage has its own creative destruction. Today, colleges and universities are still at the epicenter of espionage, but it’s all been impacted by globalization, technology, the free flow of international students and professors, and yes, 9/11. It’s as if the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about, is now the military-industrial intelligence and university complex.
Bringing this all into bold relief is my guest, Daniel Golden. Daniel Golden won a Pulitzer Prize for his Wall Street Journal series on admission preferences to elite colleges, which became the basis of his bestselling book, The Price of Admission. He’s written extensively on how US companies have dodged taxes by moving their headquarters overseas, and he was a 2011 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, for his stories about for-profit colleges exploiting veterans, students, and the homeless.
It is my pleasure to welcome Daniel Golden here to Radio WhoWhatWhy to talk about Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities. Daniel Golden, thanks so much for joining us.
Daniel Golden: My pleasure, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s a long history of espionage agencies, the CIA in particular, being involved with universities. Talk a little bit first about that early history, about the earliest recruitment of kind of the best and the brightest.
Daniel Golden: Well as you mentioned, dating back to the days of the OSS, the CIA’s precursor, there was heavy university involvement. It was really kind of born out of Yale, and they were very, very close. And then as you know, what happened was, there was a kind of giant split in the ’60s and ’70s and there became a lot of hostility and a gulf between them, culminating in the Church Committee investigation in the mid ’70s, which found that at least 300 academics were secretly helping the CIA, by providing leads and introductions and so on. And there was a backlash against that, and Harvard adopted a set of guidelines that said no professors or students could undertake intelligence operations for the CIA, or help them recruit unwitting foreign students.
And that was kind of an opportunity to kind of establish academic freedom, but the problem was, hardly any other universities adopted the Harvard guidelines, and the CIA made clear that it wasn’t going to pay any attention to them, and it didn’t think that they had any validity. And so, since then, there started to be a gradual reconciliation and then, after 9/11, the pace really picked up and again now universities and US intelligence are very close. And there’s a lot of proliferation of intelligence community in Pentagon, funding for universities, for curriculum, for research, and other things. And there’s a whole new network of ties, and as you mentioned, it’s not simply that it’s come full circle, because globalization has made a huge difference.
So we now have about a million foreign students, and hundreds of thousands of foreign scientists, and researchers, and professors. Some of them are here to gain access to sensitive research or cultivate sources on US politics and economic policy. But at the same time, the FBI and the CIA are very interested in recruiting well-connected foreign students and professors and sending them home as our agents. And while in the early days, and still now, the recruiting of US citizens by US intelligence is over, they say who they are, the recruiting of the foreign students and professors is often covert and clandestine.
So globalization has changed the picture a lot, and the other aspect of it is, because of the changed mood in the country, and the financial relationships, universities turn a blind eye to all this and they allow this kind of covert recruiting to go on.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent did 9/11 play a key role in the way this has moved forward?
Daniel Golden: I think it played a key role because it … universities after that didn’t want to seem unpatriotic and the view of the intelligence agencies changed. I remember Rochester Institute of Technology, they had been close to the CIA and then it turned out that in the ’90s the president was secretly doing work for the CIA, and they kicked the CIA off campus and then, after 9/11, they welcomed them back in, and the CIA played a big role there and was suggesting topics for senior theses and the like. And there’s been a lot more funding in this area from the government, there’s academic centers for cyber security, and all these kinds of programs that universities of course love to get funding.
Jeff Schechtman: And of course this works both ways, because as you talk about foreign governments, you are looking at US universities, as vehicles for them obtaining information, as you talk about for example in the story of Glenn Shriver.
Daniel Golden: Well, yes. That’s another aspect of it, the American students and professors who go abroad, depending on where they go and what they’re doing are liable to be recruited by either domestic or foreign intelligence. Shriver was a student at Grand Valley State in Michigan, who went on a study-abroad program to China, fell in love with the place, learned the language, went back a number times, and right after college was recruited by Chinese intelligence, covertly. They were pretending to be Shanghai Municipal Government officials. They paid him 70,000 dollars to try and enter the CIA and he was caught and imprisoned, but it’s kind of worsened because he wasn’t somebody with … an amazing student or special, stood out in any particular way, and is kind of an average kid.
So it was kind of a signal that in China at least, and maybe other countries, American students were vulnerable. But foreign governments aren’t just recruiting Americans when they get there, they’re very active in the US. I tell the story in my book of another, of a Chinese graduate student named Ruopeng Liu. He went to Duke, and was working there on sensitive Pentagon-funded research, about how to build an invisibility cloak to hide our weapons, and he basically stole this research by various means. He brought in Chinese collaborators, who photographed the equipment at Duke and he tricked the professor into committing to share his research in China, and he started a website in China with the Duke research.
Duke finally woke up and took away his key to the lab, but they still gave him a doctorate, and then he went back to China, and with government support started a company in an institute that sort of competes with Duke and uses its research, and today he’s a billionaire.
Jeff Schechtman: Two of the issues that really lie inside all of this, is the degree to which universities rely so heavily today on government contracts, number one, and also the degree to which universities rely on revenue from foreign students. Talk about both of those things.
Daniel Golden: Well you’re right, I mean that they do rely heavily on federal funding and on revenue from foreign students. Partly because there are other sources of revenue, in some cases, that are drying up or not doing as well, so for public universities many states have cut back their funding. And, for private universities, the percentage of alumni who donate to universities has been going down, so they get fewer, smaller gifts, so they’re very … increasing reliance on big gifts from individual donors, on federal support for the kind of programs we’re talking about. And their percentage of foreign students has gone up, because they pay full tuition, they don’t necessarily get as much financial aid as American students, and some public universities even have three tiers of tuition. One level of tuition for in-state, one level for out-of-state, and a higher level for international students.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the degree to which this is going on, not just at elite institutions as we talked about the way it used to work, but it’s going on in colleges and universities everywhere, both small colleges and large state universities.
Daniel Golden: Yes, I found examples of kind of intelligence activity or interest kind of pervading, as you say every level, the elite private schools, the state universities, and even a small liberal arts college. There’s Marietta college in Ohio, tiny little college kind of just in middle America. And it unexpectedly has this very bizarre partnership with a university in Beijing, called the University of International Relations, which is partly funded and overseen by China’s intelligence ministry and is known in China for training China spies. And yet Marietta sends its faculty over to teach there. It takes University of International Relations faculty over at Marietta. It takes UIR students coming over for a year or a semester to study at Marietta.
And they have this very close relationship, and the main reason is that Marietta has a small endowment and the UIR helps it recruit full tuition paying Chinese students, so there’s a financial motive. And the whole thing, it’s fascinating, it was set up by this kind of mysterious professor at Marietta, whose father was a minister in Mao Zedong’s cabinet, Labor Minister, very close to Mao and who it turns out from some WikiLeaks documents, that came out a few years ago, is also a US government informant about Xi Jinping, because he knew the Chinese president growing up, they were very close friends.
And so this guy has ties to both the US and Chinese governments, and he set up this partnership, and the other funny thing is that … and this partnership extends in every way except one. Marietta doesn’t send students to the University of International Relations because it knows that if its graduates have that on their resume, they won’t be able to work for the US government, which is well aware that this is China’s spy school. And so it sends its students to China, to a different university. But it’s hard to figure what exactly is going on, it seems like, one motivation for the University of International Relation to send its people for the exposure to America, to Marietta College is that … First of all, they probably couldn’t get away with having a partnership with a high profile university. Somebody would notice that this school was linked to Chinese intelligence.
And the other reason is that this gives China’s future spies a sort of taste of American culture, the Minor League Baseball, and barbecue, and the sort of everyday American life they learn what it’s like and later they can fit in better.
Jeff Schechtman: And on the other side of the educational equation, it’s even going on in places like Harvard’s Kennedy School, which is kind of ground zero for some of it.
Daniel Golden: Yes, I mean the Kennedy School has a web of ties to the CIA, and has had for a long time. And what I discovered, it’s never been reported before but it’s gone on for many years, is that the CIA places agents undercover in the Kennedy School’s mid-career program, which is about two-thirds foreigners and their future foreign leaders in business, in the military, in government. And what happens is, a CIA intelligence officer has been overseas, say that their cover there is a diplomat like a political officer in an embassy. Then they’re sent for training for a year to the Kennedy School, and they use the same cover. I looked at the old photo rosters of the Kennedy School, of all the participants and somebody would be listed as a political officer from an embassy, and yet I was able to find out that they were actually in the CIA.
Sometimes afterwards they acknowledge that, sometimes I interviewed them and they ‘fessed it up. One guy died and his obituary said “legendary CIA agent dies,” but his photo roster at the Kennedy School says “political officer, embassy in Madrid.” And so, what happens is, they’re there and they’re rubbing elbows with these future foreign leaders who could become great assets for them overseas. And these programs are all about networking, so they make contacts that the foreigner doesn’t know that this person is from the CIA. They think they’re going out for a beer with somebody from the State Department.
Jeff Schechtman: How reliable has all of this been? When we think back to what went on, with respect to the OSS in the early days of the CIA in the Cold War, there was a certain intelligence, a certain reliability with respect to those elites that were recruited. When it’s become as widespread as it is, as we’re talking about, how reliable is the whole operation in that regard?
Daniel Golden: Well, I mean, I think that in general that the success rate is pretty low, but if you get one really successful agent, the asset, that’s a huge deal. So I mean, from the point of view of US intelligence, I mean yeah, a lot of the foreigners who they recruit, may not actually help and it might be easier to agree to provide information when you’re comfortably at a US campus and it’s a couple years before you’re going home, than it is when you actually go home, to go ahead and provide information. So, I think it’s a low success rate, but you can have a huge success. Like on the other side, Cuba had a tremendous success with an agent who was recruited at a US campus, Johns Hopkins.
So what happened was, there was a Puerto Rican student named Marta Rita Velasquez, a very bright young woman, the daughter of a judge and law professor in Puerto Rico, who sympathized with the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, and it kind of sees Cuba as a model, of an island that stood up to the US. And she went to Princeton, wrote a very praising thesis about Castro, was recruited by Cuban intelligence, went to grad school at Johns Hopkins, and there she recruited Ana Belén Montes, who was also of Puerto Rican descent, who eventually rose to become the top analyst in the US government on Cuban policy and was kind of setting our Cuba policy, while she was providing all sorts of classified documents about it to Cuba. And she’s probably the most damaging, certainly Cuban mole ever in the U.S. government, maybe from any country, and she was successful for a long time until she was finally caught, and sent to prison for 25 years.
And very little has been written about Velasquez, so I focused on her, and she, after recruiting Montes, she ended up also in the US government, in USAID in Latin America, which was a useful place for Cuba to have her, and then when Montes was arrested and pleaded guilty, so she’s cooperating, Velasquez realized she would be named and that the jig was up and she fled to Sweden. Her husband was a Swedish diplomat, and I tracked her down there, she’s teaching public high school in Stockholm. Even though she’s under indictment in the US, there’s no extradition agreement for espionage between the two countries. And, the funny thing is, I interviewed her … The principal, the school where she teaches, and it’s a school that uses a curriculum from Cisco Systems, out here in California, so they’re always sending students and teachers on field trips to Cisco Systems, into California.
And the principal said to me, “It’s a funny thing, we love Marta. She’s a wonderful teacher but we often ask her, would you like to go back to the US and join our field trips?” And he says, for some reason, he said, “She never wants to go, she never wants to chaperone on these trips, she just wants to stay in Sweden.” Of course, I knew why she can’t come back to the US without being arrested for espionage.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent are there any formal ties between the FBI, the CIA and the universities? And how much of it is simply the universities looking the other way?
Daniel Golden: Well, there is a kind of umbrella organization that was set up, but a key figure in the reconciliation, between US intelligence and the universities was Graham Spanier, who’s now unfortunately better known for his role in the Sandusky case but was president of Penn State for about 15 years. And he realized that US intelligence was kind of skulking around on campuses, and he wanted to make it a more open relationship and let them go through the front door. And he founded something called the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, which has 20 or 25 college presidents and people from FBI and CIA. And they brief the universities on their activities on campus, and in return, the universities grant them access. And Spanier also helped by calling lots of colleges, whose presidents weren’t on NSHEAB and saying, the CIA is going to drop by tomorrow, the next week, and they’d like access to your campus, they want to interview these professors, or these students or whatever, and he opened a lot of doors for the intelligence agents.
Now the problem was, he thought that this meant that once they went through the front door they wouldn’t skulk around and go through the back door. But my sense is they do both, when it suits them they let the college know that they’re coming, and when it doesn’t suit them, they don’t let the college know that they’re coming.
Jeff Schechtman: On the intelligence community side, how much of this effort is coordinated and well-thought out versus how much of it is really ad hoc on the part of both the CIA and the FBI?
Daniel Golden: Well, I’d say it’s sometimes one and sometimes the other. I think, the CIA has a domestic division and national resources division, and if they have an intelligence officer in one of their US offices and the guy has got nothing better to do, he might print up some fake business cards, get a false identity, and go over to a campus and see if he can strike gold with a foreign student or professor. And might have a target in a given department or field and try that, or might go to an academic conference nearby which would be full of scientists from all countries and identify somebody interesting there, and go there posing as a scientist, or a businessman, or a consultant, or something, and sidle up to somebody who might help US intelligence and get a conversation going.
I mean, I think that’s sort of part of the job description, but it’s not planned by the agency, but on the other hand there have been major agency efforts. One of them I write about is before the Iranian nuclear agreement, one thing that CIA wanted to do to slow down Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon was to get its top nuclear scientists to defect to the US. Kind of make inroads among the key people that Iran needed to build a bomb. But it’s not easy to recruit these people in Tehran, so they set up academic conferences and kind of, outside Iran, in the United States, and in Europe, and so on. Secretly funded by the CIA and tailored to the research interest of whatever Iranian scientists they wanted to defect, and then they would invite the scientists to come to the conference, and often the guy would come with his handlers and they would separate him from his handlers, and try and talk him into defecting to the US.
So, I mean that was a sort of academic strategy that was well thought out and expensive and, in some cases, successful.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent, if at all, are large global multinational businesses involved in any way in these efforts?
Daniel Golden: That’s something I didn’t really research, and I can’t really give you a solid answer. Obviously, for these academic conferences, the CIA needed intermediaries, they needed businesses and other institutions to be the ostensible sponsors of the conferences. So, in that sense they needed corporate support. Another thing is that there’s a whole bunch of companies that have sprung up as CIA fronts in dealing with academia. So that, for example, let’s say the CIA is interested in having a professor brief it on some important issue, a conflict in the Middle East or something. But they know that professor doesn’t want to have on his resume that he gave a talk to the CIA, might hurt him when he is trying to do research overseas or something, because of the CIA’s reputation.
So instead of the CIA staging the conference, they do it through a front, the most common one is Centra Technology. So then they can bring the professor in, the professor can tell them all about what’s going on in the Middle East or Latin America or whatever the specialty is, and on his resume he can put ‘I gave a speech for Centra Technology’ and nobody’s the wiser.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there any consistency into how students, young people, whether they’re international students, even domestic students, react to this today?
Daniel Golden: Well, I think that it’s widely divergent. Of course, I mostly heard about the cases where they expressed some interest or that those cases have blossomed into something. But I think that often … First of all they don’t necessarily know, as I mentioned the international students, that it’s the CIA or the FBI recruiting them. It’s usually somebody, persons posing as something else, so they may not know for a long time, even when they go back to their home country, they may not necessarily know that the person or place they’re providing information to, is US intelligence. They might just think that they’re helping a US business or a consultant, or something, so they’re not necessarily witting participants.
And then, I think it depends on their view of their home country, their view of their home government, and also whether the CIA or FBI has any pressure points on them. Like there’s a professor at the University of South Florida, named Dajin Peng, who was of interest to the FBI because he had gone to that spy university I mentioned in China, which not everybody who goes there becomes a spy and he probably didn’t. But he’d gone there, and then he was director of South Florida’s Confucius Institute, which these institutes of language and culture, which are somewhat controversial instruments of Chinese soft power, but they’re funded and staffed by China, and the FBI thinks some of their people are spies.
So, the FBI was interested in him and he got in trouble for financial transgressions and having porn on his computer and a bunch of other things. And the FBI went to him, and they said, “You’ve got two choices, you can lose your professorship and go to prison for your financial wrongdoing, or we’ll intercede with the university to make sure you keep your professorship, but you have to spy on China and on the Confucius Institutes for us.” And they even asked to South Florida, would it set up a branch in China as a base for his spying. So, in that case, I mean he certainly didn’t want to help the FBI, but he really didn’t have a lot of choice, but to pretend to go along.
Jeff Schechtman: And finally, what about the reaction from American students that are recruited or attempted to be recruited by foreign agents?
Daniel Golden: Well of course, in the Shriver case, he went along with it. I mean, students are sort of young and impressionable and in some cases like Shriver, they tend not to know how deep they’re getting in. So, in that case, Shriver, he didn’t have any ideological reason for helping China, I mean he needed the money, they were paying him, and he thought he could manipulate them. He thought, well I’ll play Chinese intelligence, I’ll take their money but I won’t help them. That’s ridiculous, because once they’ve paid you, they own you, they can blackmail you. They can always say, “If you don’t help us, we’re going to tell the US authorities that you took money from Chinese intelligence.”
These students, they’re young, they’re innocent, and whether they’re American or foreign and they’re often out of their depth, and I think probably if they get involved like this, in their later years they regret it. I mean, I think obviously Shriver regrets it. I think Marta Rita Velasquez, the one who is now teaching in Sweden, I think it’s possible she might regret it too. But when you’re 20 years old and either you’re ideologically vulnerable, or you need money, or you just have too much self-confidence and a taste for adventure, you can get into things that, in your more mature years you might think twice about. So, what happens is that whenever intelligence agencies operate, there’s a lot of collateral damage and these students and sometimes also the professors can be the victims.
Jeff Schechtman: And is it your sense this is going to continue to go on? Is there anything that’s going to really push back against it?
Daniel Golden: Oh! I think it’ll continue to go on, and probably even more intensively. I mean now, Trump is so belligerent and unpredictable, I’m sure foreign countries are frantically trying to figure what in the world he’s going to do next, and so they’re probably very eager to get intelligence and universities are one of the places they would go to try and find people who could tell them. And for the US side, I mean I don’t think, this is a government that cares too much about the civil liberties of foreign students or professors, so I doubt there’s going to be a lot of breaks on what the CIA and FBI do. So, yes, I think it’ll go on and, if anything, intensify.
Jeff Schechtman: Daniel Golden, his book is Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities. Daniel, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Daniel Golden: Thanks Jeff, it was great pleasure.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.
Daniel Golden: Nice talking with you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you, and thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week, for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it, by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do, by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from graduates (US Department of Education / Flickr).

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3 responses to “Spy University: How Intelligence Agencies Recruit Their Next Generation”

  1. Bob In Portland says:

    It’s amazing how many controversial incidents and legal cases have intelligence assets in close proximity. For example, everyone remembers that OJ Simpson said he wouldn’t wear those ugly Bruno Magli shoes when that picture was presented at trial. Then at the civil trial the complainants introduced many more pictures of Simpson, authenticated by the Rochester Institute of Technology. RIT’s Center for Imaging Science did the “authentication”. And who funded the Center for Imaging Science? The CIA. One of the programs the CIA funded was about “digital image processing”.

    Back in 1994 when Simpson went on trial few people knew about how photographs could be manipulated via digital work. You may not believe OJ Simpson, but do you believe evidence “verified” by the CIA?

    There are curious other appearances during the Simpson civil trial, to include two (TWO!!) coroners who worked for government investigations of JFK’s murder. And, of course, there was F. Lee Bailey, who over his career seems to have shown up in so many cases with national security implications. And more.

    Three years before this, in 1991, there were stories exposing the CIA’s activities on campus, and in the administration on campus. The president of the college, M. Richard Rose, had spent his sabbatical time working for the CIA, and appointed a 25-year CIA employee to head the Center for Imaging Science.

    Just saying.

  2. Nigel Hanrahan says:

    Daniel Golden: “It’s as if the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about, is now the military-industrial intelligence and university complex.”

    I cannot remember the source now, but I did read once the claim that the expression “the military-industrial complex” WAS “the military-industrial-academic complex” and that Eisenhower, or whoever was advising him, backed off from including academia in the description. Academia was scary, and vindictive, even then.

  3. Jane Roe says:

    Wow. Fantastic podcast. “Classic http://WWW.” Perhaps. Memorable. Can we get more unique, not as political stuff like this?

    So much stuff here: OIR university/Marietta, Kennedy school, undergrad kid at grand valley getting bribed by the Chinese for $70k, Confucius Institutes, Puerto Rican/Cuban spies. I feel like all of these topics could easily be explored further in podcasts and articles.

    3 thumbs up.