McMahon Hall at Catholic University of America, in Washington D.C. (Courtesy CUA)
Academic programs in intelligence (I mean the national security kind, not artificial or human intelligence) have been sprouting up at U.S. colleges and universities since before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.One study found that the number of college courses in intelligence more than tripled from 2001 to 2008, and a 2015 survey found that more than two dozen universities have organized their intelligence offerings into dedicated and discrete intelligence studies programs.
This surge is a natural response by U.S. higher education to geopolitical developments, much like the growth of Russian studies programs in the Cold War, the sudden focus on science and engineering majors after the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 or, more recently, the proliferation of Arabic language programs. Intelligence has always been a staple of popular entertainment in the modern era, and with its frequent appearances in the news, more college students than ever are considering intelligence as a career. Colleges and universities are trying to meet demand by supplying content.
Having recently entered academia after retiring from a 26-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency, I am finding that higher education is moving from one extreme to the other in its approach to intelligence as an academic discipline.
The old approach was largely to ignore intelligence as an independent subject, treating it as an afterthought in national security studies or in U.S. history programs. Courses might be offered on popular but unserious themes, like “The Anti-Hero in Spy Films” or “The Cold War in Spy Fiction.” But separate programs in intelligence studies were rare. Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., pioneered the first intelligence program at a civilian institution in 1992 and was alone in that distinction for years.
The pendulum has swung to the new extreme — intelligence as its own major. Almost all the universities cited in the 2015 survey have full-blown degree-granting programs in intelligence, most of them leading to bachelor of arts degrees in intelligence analysis.
The problem with the former approach — treating intelligence at best as an appendage to other disciplines — is that intelligence is a complex and unique subject that deserves its own academic treatment, particularly to benefit those students who have interest in and intend to apply for positions in the U.S. government’s intelligence community. CIA recruiters tell me that most young people applying for intelligence positions don’t have a solid background in what intelligence is, what it does, how it developed in the United States and what its limitations are. Even those few who get through the onerous hiring process and become newly minted intelligence officers don’t know as much about their new profession as they should. A few have ended up leaving CIA service early in what should have been productive careers, simply because they did not realize what they were getting into when they entered. Needless to say, U.S. intelligence agencies don’t want its new employees to be ignoramuses about intelligence.
The problem with the latter approach — degree programs in intelligence — is that U.S. intelligence agencies also don’t want new hires to have majored in intelligence. I have heard this from active and former senior officials from CIA, NSA and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, who have all echoed what intelligence scholar Mark Lowenthal (himself a former assistant CIA director) has said: “Intelligence can be a minor; it must never be a major.”
There is a simple reason for this: It’s a matter of opportunity costs. The current geopolitical environment, now more than ever, demands intelligence officers with substantive expertise in specific subject areas, including languages.
A student majoring in intelligence is not majoring in Chinese, or nuclear physics, or international finance, or biochemistry, or any number of substantive fields that are highly valued by the intelligence agencies. Anyone who looks at the descriptions of intelligence positions posted on CIA’s website will see desired qualifications that include degrees in these and other fields, such as statistics, computer science, international affairs and the like.
Proponents of degree programs in intelligence analysis justify these majors by saying that analysis is a unique profession within intelligence. That is true, but the intelligence agencies themselves prefer to teach the “how to” of intelligence analysis to new employees. Critical thinking and cogent writing are essential for success in intelligence, but these skills can be acquired by a rigorous academic program in almost any field. A veteran CIA instructor told me that the agency’s analytic training program does see the occasional new hire who has majored in intelligence, but they do not stand out from their contemporaries. These intelligence degree programs are popular, they are well staffed, and they are expensive, but for all that, they fail to clearly deliver a demonstrable advantage while keeping the student from majoring in something that might actually get him or her hired and that would offer the best chance at success in an intelligence career.
College students should not have too little study of intelligence, nor too much, but would benefit from a “just right” program. Colleges and universities would do best to develop a “Goldilocks” approach that bridges the knowledge gap among students interested in the intelligence profession but does not supplant the study of those disciplines that help intelligence officers understand the world. One such approach would be what I have been charged with at my institution: the development of a minor in intelligence studies, with significant involvement by former intelligence officers with academic credentials, to provide students with the knowledge they need about intelligence collection, analysis, counterintelligence and covert action, as well as the accountability of intelligence that our democratic system requires. Now more than ever, it’s imperative for universities to be intelligent about intelligence studies.
Nicholas Dujmovic is a visiting assistant professor of politics at Catholic University of America in D.C. and the director of the university’s program in intelligence studies. He retired from the Central Intelligence Agency in June 2016 with 26 years of service as an intelligence officer as well as 14 years in the United States Coast Guard.