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The Intelligence Community and Centers of Academic Excellence

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The Intelligence Community and Centers of Academic Excellence

In 1997, the IC community held the first “National Colloquium on International Systems Security Education (NCISSE).

In 1998, the National Security Agency established a program to identify Intelligence Community Centers of Academic Excellence – colleges and universities capable of educating students in computer security and other IC skills.

Since then, other IC agencies established similar programs, including the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).

Those moves were part of an urgent effort by the U.S. Intelligence community to more quickly develop a pool of high-quality U.S. applicants (college graduates) that would have the skills and training that the IC so desperately needed in the midst of a global intelligence war.

The move was also likely due to the fact that throughout the 1990s and beyond 2000, Intelligence agencies such as the NSA, CIA and DIA were continually culling their workforce – 12 percent from 1990 to 1996, and 3 percent from 1997 through 2001.

According to an article published in the Federation of American Scientists, this workforce reduction was counterbalanced by an increased cost of workforce – between promotions and the cost of benefits such as healthcare.

By 2005, the IC realized that something had to be done, so the solution became the ODNI’s Center of Academic Excellence. It was a program intended to rebuild the skillset of not only IC analysts, but also to develop qualified future managers throughout those agencies. (1)

cia program

Creating Trained Intelligence Professionals

The goals of the Intelligence Community Centers of Academic Excellence program was to first establish “academic partnerships” with select colleges and universities around the country.

Second, the IC would cultivate those relationships to assist those schools in establishing a curriculum that would “meet specific IC needs”.

In other words, because the Intelligence Community was not getting what it felt was a highly-qualified pool of applicants normally applying to the various agencies, the ODNI attempted to essentially customize a college curriculum that would result in graduates that were custom-trained for IC positions.

The final goal – at least a claimed goal – was to “provide financial and technical support to those educational institutions.” However, the reality of the program was that not all schools were able to obtain any funding as a result of getting “accredited” as a Center of Academic Excellence.

matt bishhop

Weaknesses of the Intelligence Curriculum

Unfortunately, the plan didn’t quite work out as intended.

As is usually the case with government funded programs, the money turned out to be more carrot than incentive, and the IC “curriculum” turned out to be not much more than an overly specialized training program that left students ill-trained for real world careers if they did not obtain a position within the IC.

These points were spelled out in a 2009 report titled “A Critical Analysis of the Centers of Academic Excellence Program”, written by Matt Bishop of the University of California at Davis, and Carol Taylor of Eastern Washington University.

The authors pointed out that the goals of the IC curriculum (NSTISSI 4011) did not align with the typical goals of an academic education, because of how the skillset was only aligned to the IC and overly specialized.

The authors wrote:

“The main problem with using NSTISSI 4011 as a guide to college level curriculum development is that the goals of NSTISSI 4011 are fundamentally different than those of academic education. Briefly, the goal of NSTISSI 4011 is to ensure students are trained in specific topic areas related to the job they will perform should they be hired by a government agency. This type of knowledge may be inapplicable in other areas (including many security jobs in industry).”

In terms of funding the program, the authors pointed out that not all schools that get accredited are guaranteed funds. And obtaining available funds involves a highly competitive grant application process.

“NSF offers grants for information assurance but they are highly competitive with an acceptance rate of between 10 – 12%.”

The authors also pointed out that in many cases funding wasn’t enough for many schools to justify the effort and administrative overhead involved in not only obtaining the accreditation, but the effort involved in administrating the program itself.

“Funding for the centers has been a concern from the program’s inception. Currently, the being designated a ‘Center’ brings with it no government support for administrative overhead, security research or faculty development. The lack of funding creates a hardship for Centers that typically have one or two faculty who must then administer the program in addition to other duties such as course development, graduate student mentoring and research.”

In other words, while the IC hopes to obtain highly-qualified graduates that are specially trained according to the IC’s needs, the funding just isn’t there to support the schools and institutions willing to help the IC in producing those highly skilled IC graduates.

The Danger of Introducing the IC to College Students

The real danger of the IC CAE program is in the fact that it represents a significant shift from the perspective of many academics throughout the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s – educators that witnessed Vietnam and presidential corruption.

In his 2010 paper titled “Silent Coup”, David Price explains that academics objected to the CIA entering into academia for reasons including:

“…the recognition of secrecy’s antithetical relationship to academic freedom, to political objections to the CIA’s use of torture and assassination, to efforts on campuses to recruit professors and students, and the CIA’s longstanding role in undermining democratic movements around the world.”

mapping mexico

However, David points out that as those academics have either retired or passed away, the new generation of professors and researchers represent a new opportunity for the IC community to gain a foothold inside of the academic community.

In a report titled “The Demarest Factor”, written by researcher Simon Sedillo in 2009, Simon detailed the evidence showing that DoD funding provided to Kansas University in 2005 for a Mexico mapping project led to a number of ethical violations that the U.S. military bypassed by camouflaging the mapping project as an academic study rather than a military project.

“Our growing concern has revolved around, academic ethics violations due to improper transparency with communities about the research funding, and serious U.S. Army violations of Mexican sovereignty, and of indigenous autonomy. Our collective research over the last year has resulted in several key pieces of irrefutable evidence, demonstrating both academic ethics violations, and serious violations of Mexican sovereignty and indigenous autonomy.”

This is only one example of the sort of dangers that Universities encounter when they make the decision to cross that line and get in bed with the Intelligence Community.

While the potential for grants for research projects and scholarships for students may appear tempting at first, the ramifications of collaborating with the Intelligence Community may only be felt when it is already too late to do anything about it.

References & Image Credits:

(1) FAS
(2) Silent Coup
(3) The Demarest Factor
(7) Wayne State University

(8) University of Arizona
(9) Map Room Blog
(10) Wikipedia

Originally published on

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