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Ideas | Daniel Golden

When spies target Boston’s universities

CIA Director Mike Pompeo testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in May. Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post/File

Schuyler Korban, UMass-Boston’s vice provost for global programs, traveled to Beijing in October 2013 and exchanged gifts with Jian Tao, president of the University of International Relations — a pen holder with “UMass-Boston” engraved on it for Jian, a cardboard box with packets of green tea for Korban. In an ensuing memorandum of understanding, the universities agreed to promote student and faculty exchanges, “transnational research,” symposia, and other joint activities.

In this heyday of academic globalization, such partnerships are increasingly common. This one, though, had an unusual aspect, of which Korban says he had “no inkling” at the time. Though it operates day-to-day like an ordinary college, UIR is affiliated with and partly funded by the Ministry of State Security, China’s spy agency. American diplomats have described UIR as the ministry’s “elite institute for preparing its new recruits.”


“If I had that knowledge ahead of time, I would have looked at it a little differently,” Korban told me.

The globalization of higher education — the influx of students and professors from China and other countries; the outflow of American undergraduates to overseas universities; the proliferation of international partnerships — has raised the academic stakes for foreign and domestic intelligence services alike. Often in hidden ways, they are penetrating college campuses more deeply than ever, with troubling implications for national security and democratic values.

In labs, classrooms, and auditoriums, espionage services from countries such as China, Russia, and Cuba seek insights into US policy and access to sensitive, government-funded research. Typically, the agent — perhaps a graduate student, visiting scholar, scientific collaborator, or conference attendee — exploits academia’s openness, and inattention to campus security and intellectual property safeguards.

The FBI and CIA reciprocate, developing sources among international students and faculty whom they hope to send home as agents. The FBI, for instance, pressured Dajin Peng, a China-born professor at the University of South Florida, to spy on his native country — and even asked the university to establish a branch in China as his base.


Academia used to resist interference by US intelligence. Under then-president Derek Bok, Harvard University adopted guidelines in 1977 prohibiting students and faculty from undertaking “intelligence operations” for the CIA or helping the agency recruit foreign students under false pretenses.

“The use of the academic profession and scholarly enterprises to provide a ‘cover’ for intelligence activities is likely to corrupt the academic process and lead to a loss of public respect for academic enterprises,” a Harvard committee observed.

But few other universities followed Harvard’s lead. And amid the patriotic fervor and terrorism fears driven by the 9/11 attacks, the CIA, FBI, and other security agencies have returned in force to campuses, forging a tenuous alliance of spies and scholars.

Over lunch in a quiet corner of a suburban restaurant with a former US government official, I laid out my concerns about the invasion of academia by intelligence services — including his own. He thought it over for a moment, and then nodded. “Both sides are exploiting universities,” he said.

Boston-area universities are a mecca for intelligence activity. When an engineer who assembled centrifuges for Iran’s nuclear program agreed to defect to the United States on condition that he would pursue a doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the CIA facilitated his MIT admission, a person familiar with the situation told me. Carlos Alvarez, a professor at Florida International University, became affiliated with Harvard’s Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and ran a workshop at Harvard to foster dialogue between young Cubans and Cuban-Americans. He was later unmasked as a Cuban agent and sentenced to five years in prison.


That workshop “could have been of interest to Cuban intelligence,” said Jorge Dominguez, a Harvard scholar of Latin American politics who was friendly with Alvarez. “The most extreme scenario would be that Carlos sold it to the Cuban government as a means to penetrate the Cuban-American community.”

Harvard has long since reconciled with its onetime adversary, the CIA. In the face of criticism from the intelligence community last month, it quickly withdrew its invitation to Chelsea Manning, a former soldier convicted of leaking classified information, to be a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Numerous CIA officers posing as State Department diplomats have enrolled in the mid-career program at the Kennedy School. Two of these officers, who have since left the agency, told me that Harvard administrators were aware of their undercover participation in the one-year program. It offers a master’s degree in public administration to future military, business, and political leaders, of whom more than 60 percent come from abroad.

“We will protect your identity,” one school administrator told me. “We serve the government. This is our government.”

Although they aren’t supposed to formally recruit classmates, nothing prevents the CIA officers — benefiting from the same cover they use overseas — from grooming a potential asset, perhaps over a beer in Harvard Square. “My associations that I made there came in handy later,” a former CIA officer told me.


Some foreign classmates may be spying for their own countries. When Donald Heathfield, an up-and-coming Canadian, turned out to be Russian spy Andrey Bezrukov, the Kennedy School rescinded his degree.

UMass-Boston’s relationship with China’s spy university began when Timothy Shaw, director of the Global Governance and Human Security doctoral program, agreed to host two visiting scholars from UIR. Neither of the UIR professors took or taught courses at UMass-Boston; in fact, they hardly showed up at all. Instead, Shaw told me, they spent most of their time crashing seminars and conferences at Boston University, Northeastern University, MIT, and especially Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Going to conferences is a favorite academic pastime. It’s also a popular way for espionage services to make contacts and gather unclassified but valuable information.

Shaw was pleased that they weren’t bothering him. “It never occurred to me that they might be spooks, sniffing around,” he told me. “They didn’t have the demeanor. I just assumed they were enjoying their six months here in a very different environment. I was just glad they weren’t in my hair.”

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. Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Golden. All rights reserved.