How Spy Agencies Use American Universities to Secretly Recruit Students
A professor at a top-tier American University was moderating a campus discussion on arms control in 2010 when a Russian diplomat approached him, proffered a business card, and invited him to lunch. Because the professor held a security clearance, he was obliged to run this overture past the FBI, which told him that the diplomat was a Russian intelligence officer.
“I guess I won’t meet him for lunch,” the professor said. “That’s one option,” the FBI said. “We’d prefer you to meet him.”
So the professor became a double agent. Over the next two years the Russian and the FBI each treated the professor to 10 lunches. The Russian plied him with gifts—a fine bottle of Posolskaya vodka, an $800 Victorinox Swiss Army watch—and paid him $2,000 for an analysis of the Afghanistan war. The professor turned the money over to the FBI but was allowed to keep the watch, which he enjoys showing off at dinner parties. It’s the ultimate conversation piece: a bribe from a Russian spy.
In 2008, when Kenneth Moskow died in a mountain climbing accident, many of his former classmates in the mid-career program at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government were startled to learn from the obituaries that he had been a top CIA spy. He had told them, and his professors, that he worked for the State Department—it was the same cover he used on assignment in Spain and Cyprus—and the school’s photo roster listed him that way. The pretense likely helped him cultivate foreign classmates, including ex–Guatemalan defense minister Hector Gramajo and Jose Maria Figueres, who was soon to become president of Costa Rica.
Most spy services view universities as a prime recruiting ground. People are most pliable in their late teens and early twenties.
Such vignettes illustrate how U.S. universities have become a favored arena for the secret jousting of spy versus spy. In labs, classrooms, and auditoriums, espionage services from countries such as China, Russia, and Cuba vie for recruits who not only can help them gain insights into U.S. policy and access to sensitive research but could someday attain high-level jobs in the federal government.
The FBI and CIA reciprocate, developing sources among international students and faculty and sending them home as American agents. In a 2012 poll of staff at U.S. universities who work with international students, 31 percent reported that the FBI had visited students within the past year. As one former U.S. government official told me, “Both sides are exploiting universities.”
Campus life makes it simple for foreigners and Americans alike to gather intelligence. Even spies with no academic affiliation can slip unnoticed into lectures, seminars, and cafeterias and befriend the computer scientist or Pentagon adviser sitting beside them.
“Most if not all spy services view universities as a prime recruiting ground,” says Chris Simmons, a former counterintelligence officer at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm. “People are most pliable in their late teens and early twenties when they’re young and inexperienced. It’s easy for someone trained in the art of manipulation to steer them in a direction they’re already inclined, or help convince them it’s what they intended all along.”
Both sides are exploiting universities.
Hidden and sometimes deceptive, the spy services exploit—and taint—the traditional academic ideals of transparency and independent scholarship. Nevertheless, as universities pursue revenue and global prominence by opening branches abroad and ramping up enrollment of full-tuition international students, they have ignored or even condoned espionage.
Columbia University Business School, for instance, didn’t rescind the master’s degree of Cynthia Murphy, a suburban New Jersey mother of two, when she turned out to be a Russian spy named Lydia Guryev, instructed by Moscow to “strengthen ties w. classmates on a daily basis incl. professors who can help in job search and who will have (or already have) access to secret info.”
The library at Columbia University.
Taking advantage of an unwary professor and a startling absence of intellectual property safeguards, Chinese graduate student Ruopeng Liu poached Pentagon-funded research at Duke University on invisibility and metamaterials (artificial materials with properties not found in nature). The professor finally took away Liu’s key to the lab, but Duke still gave him a doctorate. Armed with the university’s research, Liu returned to China.
While it isn’t clear whether Liu was acting on his own or for Chinese intelligence—in an interview he denied that he had engaged in any wrongdoing whatsoever—funding from China’s government helped him start his own metamaterials company and institute, and he became a billionaire. He was never charged with spying, but an FBI interview with the professor about Liu’s activities was shown to an invitation-only audience in September 2015 under the title “The Theft of a Great Idea.”
Cuban intelligence has been especially active at universities in southern Florida, New York City, and Washington, DC, including the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. As a graduate student there, Marta Rita Velazquez befriended her fellow classmate of Puerto Rican descent Ana Belen Montes—and recruited her to spy for Cuba. Montes rose to become the premier analyst on Cuba in the Defense Intelligence Agency and “one of the most damaging spies in U.S. history,” according to Michelle Van Cleave, who headed U.S. counterintelligence under President George W. Bush.
After supplying Cuban intelligence with names and biographical sketches of more than 400 Cuba watchers in the U.S. government, Montes was caught in 2002 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Meanwhile, the lesser-known Vela?zquez, an idealistic Princeton graduate who praised Fidel Castro in her senior thesis for following “the wisest” race relations policy “ever taken by a Cuban leader,” held key positions with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Nicaragua and Guatemala. Married to a Swedish diplomat, she quit USAID after Montes’s arrest and fled to Sweden, which bans extradition for spying.
Montes, unable to return to the U.S., where she’s under indictment for conspiracy to commit espionage, teaches Spanish and English in a public high school in Stockholm. According to the principal, she “gets very good reviews from her students.”
Two trends have converged to create this surge in academic spying. The first is the growing intimacy between U.S. intelligence and academia, driven partly by patriotic fervor and terrorism fears in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Deterred by student protests and faculty hostility during the Vietnam era, the CIA, FBI, and other security agencies have returned in force, forging a tenuous alliance of spies and scholars.
September 11 led to a quiet reengagement of a lot of the academy with the national security community.
“September 11 led to a quiet reengagement of a lot of the academy with the national security community,” says Austin Long, who taught security policy at Columbia University. Perhaps more than anyone else, Graham Spanier is responsible for this rapprochement. As president of Pennsylvania State University from 1995 to 2011, he helped establish and chaired the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, which fosters dialogue between intelligence agencies and universities. He also gave FBI-sponsored seminars for administrators at MIT, Michigan State, Stanford, and other universities, and opened doors for the CIA throughout academia.
“What a CIA person can’t do is call the [university] president’s office and, when the secretary answers, say, ‘I’m from the CIA and I want an appointment,’” Spanier told me. “Before anybody would do that, I would call the president. The presidents all knew me. They would take my call.” In 2007 the CIA honored Spanier with a medal for “outstanding service.” (This past June he was sentenced to two months in jail in relation to the Jerry Sandusky scandal for failing to immediately alert law enforcement when he heard that the former assistant football coach had allegedly molested a boy in a locker room shower.)
Gilman Hall on the campus of John Hopkins University.
The second, and perhaps even more important, reason for the rise in campus spying is the globalization of higher education. Globalization has built friendships and understanding between hostile countries, and improved the quality of teaching and research. It has also fostered foreign spying at American universities and their branches overseas, as well as a corresponding spike in U.S. efforts to recruit international students and professors.
Academic migration to and from the United States has soared, and people going in both directions offer opportunities for espionage. The number of Americans studying abroad doubled between 2001 and 2015, to 313,415. In 2015–’16 the number of international students at U.S. universities topped 1 million for the first time, almost seven times the total in 1974–’75 and more than double the 1999–2000 figure. The number of foreign-born scientists and engineers working at U.S. colleges and universities rose 44 percent in the decade between 2003 and 2013, from 360,000 to 517,000. While most international students, researchers, and professors come to the United States for legitimate reasons, universities are an “ideal place” for foreign intelligence “to find recruits, propose and nurture ideas, learn and even steal research data, or place trainees,” the FBI reported in 2011.
This country’s spy services would rather sweet-talk researchers from Iran or China at a U.S. campus or on neutral turf than in their hostile homelands. The CIA, I learned, has secretly spent millions of dollars staging academic conferences around the world for the purpose of luring nuclear scientists out of Iran. Through an intermediary, typically a businessman, the agency would set up a conference at a prestigious institute on an aspect of nuclear physics that dovetailed with the research interests of a particular scientist in Iran’s weapons program. There, a CIA agent—posing as a student, a technical consultant, or an exhibitor—would catch the target alone for a few minutes and press him to defect.
One night, after the day’s proceedings had ended, audio and visual surveillance of an Iranian scientist’s hotel room showed that he was still awake, while his minders from the Revolutionary Guard were sleeping. A CIA agent tapped softly on the door, and the scientist opened it. “Salam Habibi,” the agent said, putting his hand over his heart. “I’m from the CIA, and I want you to board a plane with me to the United States."
The CIA gains access to influential foreigners through its relationship with Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Kenneth Moskow was one of a long line of CIA officers who enrolled undercover in the school’s mid-career program, gaining access to up-and-comers worldwide. Of the 214 mid-career participants in 2015–’16, 79 were American; the 135 foreign students represented 75 countries. University administrators—but not faculty—are usually aware of CIA officers in the student body and safeguard their covers. “We will protect your identity,” one administrator said. “We serve the government. This is our government.”
Memorial Church at the main campus of Harvard University.
The CIA and Harvard caution the clandestine officers against formally recruiting classmates. But nothing prevents them from grooming potential informants, perhaps over a beer at a Harvard Square bar or at one of the school’s many social functions. After graduation, a CIA officer can renew the acquaintance overseas or at a Harvard reunion, and tap his old buddy for information—still without necessarily disclosing his true employer.
The CIA sent Thomas Gordon, a former agent, to Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Germany, Bosnia, Egypt, Kuwait, the UK, Oman, Somalia, and Washington, DC—and Harvard. “We got the brief before I left. We were not to be doing our normal job when we got there, not to be recruiting,” Gordon told me. “I said, ‘Sure.’ ”
He added, “But, of course, in that line of work, you keep your line open for future consideration. It’s like going into the NFL draft. You meet people you might end up knowing later in your career... As corny as it is, there’s a camaraderie. I can pick up the phone and call anyone on the alumni list.”
Adapted from Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities, by Daniel Golden, published by Henry Holt and Company. © 2017 by Daniel Golden. All rights reserved.
This article appears in the November 2017 issue of Town & Country Magazine.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.