Los Angeles Times
January 28, 2001

Academics and Spies: The Silence That Roars

By David N. Gibbs

TUCSON -- An academic controversy has revealed a most interesting fact: A significant number of social scientists, especially political scientists, regularly work with the Central Intelligence Agency.

It has long been known that the academia - CIA connection was a staple of the early Cold War. During the 1940s and '50s, the CIA and military intelligence were among the major sources of financial support for America's social scientists. In Europe, the agency covertly supported some of the leading writers and scholars through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, as Frances Stonor Saunders recently documented in her book "The Cultural Cold War."

Such ties supposedly withered during the 1970s, in the aftermath of Vietnam and hearings by the U.S. Senate select committee on intelligence, which revealed extensive CIA misdeeds, including fomenting coups against democratically elected governments, plotting assassinations of foreign leaders and disseminating propaganda. After these revelations, it seemed that no self-respecting academic would go anywhere near the agency.

A recent article in the magazine Lingua Franca, however, reveals that this perception is inaccurate and that the "cloak and gown" connection has flourished in the aftermath of the Cold War. The article 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," it says. The article quotes esteemed academics, including Columbia's Robert Jervis, former president-elect of the American Political Science Assn., and Harvard's Joseph S. Nye. Both acknowledge having worked for the CIA. Yale's H. Bradford Westerfield is quoted as saying: "There's a great deal of actually open consultation and there's a lot more semi-open, broadly acknowledged consultation."

What is interesting about the above quote is that it is offered so casually, as if no reasonable person could find fault with the activity. Something is seriously wrong here.

The CIA is not an ordinary government agency; it is an espionage agency and the practices of espionage -- which include secrecy, propaganda and deception -- are diametrically opposed to those of scholarship. Scholarship is supposed to favor objective analysis and open discussion. The close relationship between intelligence agencies and scholars thus poses a conflict of interest. After all, the CIA has been a key party to many of the international conflicts that academics must study. If political scientists are working for the CIA, how can they function as objective and disinterested scholars?

This problem of objectivity is essentially the same one that scientists are addressing with regard to biomedical research funded by drug companies. Biomedical scientists increasingly are expected to reveal financial support that might bias their findings. It is regrettable that political science, which has no expectation of full disclosure relating to work for the CIA, holds itself to a lower standard.

The CIA likes to advertise that it has "reformed" since the end of the Cold War and no longer engages in many of the secretive practices that resulted in so much congressional and public disapproval. Indeed, several academic defenders of the CIA, including Westerfield, emphasize CIA "reform." This is mostly a public-relations gambit. People who think the agency has reformed should try requesting documents through the Freedom of Information Act; they probably will find it impossible.

Secrecy poses a special problem for scholars. Research undertaken for the CIA often is classified, so that academics who have performed the research are legally barred from revealing much of what they may find. Scholars thus are prevented from doing their jobs, which must include disseminating the fruits of their research through publication. In undertaking classified work, researchers have become complicit in the practice of secrecy, one of the most undemocratic characteristics of the intelligence services.

Jervis, Nye and Westerfield seem to discount any suggestion that academic-intelligence ties might bias scholarship. But consider covert operations undertaken by the CIA. These operations resulted in some of the most controversial actions during the Cold War, including U.S. support for overthrowing governments in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Zaire in 1961, Indonesia in 1965 and Chile in 1973. These operations have been extensively documented in Senate hearings and by other reliable sources. How does political science treat these issues? I reviewed all the articles published during the past 10 years in five of the most prestigious journals in the field. Apart from a rare paragraph or perhaps a sentence or two, they contain no mention of CIA covert operations. Covert actions have been effectively expunged from the record.

This failure of political science to discuss covert operations is troubling. The Los Angeles Times and other news media run articles on covert operations, such as the recent revelation that the CIA had close links to Gen. Manuel Contreras, Chile's dreaded secret police chief during the Pinochet dictatorship. The U.S. government has acknowledged some of these operations. This past March, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright publicly acknowledged to the Iranian government, in light of evidence, that the CIA had supported the 1953 coup in that country. Nevertheless, political science journals remain virtually silent on such issues. Can anybody explain this?

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David N. Gibbs, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Arizona, Is the Author of "The Political Economy of Third World Intervention."