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CIA's Man on Campus

Straddling the divide between espionage and academia, an intelligence officer spends a semester in the UNC-Chapel Hill Economics Department


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Like a lot of college seniors, Alison Carollo says she doesn't know what she's going to do after graduation. An economics major at UNC-Chapel Hill, she has studied in Spain and is interested in international affairs. So when she went fishing for career ideas, she sought counsel from Robin Watson, one of her professors. What does it take, Carollo asked, to work for the Central Intelligence Agency?

Few teachers can answer that question as well as Watson: He's been a CIA officer for 20 years.

Watson, 52, is a visiting lecturer, on loan from the CIA to teach a seminar called "European Economic Integration." A North Carolina native and 1970 graduate of UNC's economics program, Watson came out of the cold as part of a long-running and sometimes controversial CIA effort to keep an agency toehold in academia. After exams, he'll return to his office on the sixth floor of CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

"We have people at lots of universities," Watson explains. "The idea is to maintain some contact, to know what people are thinking about, what issues are important, and what techniques are out there."

In the past, the intelligence community has been criticized for its forays onto campus, but officers like Watson might prove a hard target for anti-CIA activists. Mild-mannered and bookish, he hardly fits the stereotype of the cloak-and-dagger spook. Watson's baritone still carries a bit of the drawl from his hometown of Red Spring in Robeson County, and when he speaks about matters of politics and policy, he doesn't sound like a company man.

"You wish, at least I do personally, that there were more situations where you could passionately take one side or the other and feel comfortable," he says. "I'm having a hard time finding situations like that."

During his college years, Watson says, he joined protests against the Vietnam War. Expecting to be drafted after graduation, he volunteered for the Navy and served for three-and-a-half years. In 1980, he received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and joined the CIA. "I had decided in the Navy that I didn't want to dread Monday mornings," Watson says. "So this was a chance to do something interesting and important and not have to dread Monday morning."

Watson made his mark in the CIA as a top economic analyst, focusing on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. "The vast majority of what I do for the government is classified," Watson says, so he can't discuss too many specifics either in an interview or in class. But he is willing to describe the basics. For the last five years, he says, he has served as head of the Econometrics and Economic Data Team, a unit within the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence, which handles research and analysis.

Watson is grateful for the respite from his analyst job. "It's a lot more fun to deal with college people than Washington bureaucrats," he says.

"Nothing clandestine"

So far, Watson's time at UNC has passed productively and quietly. Apparently, the only people who know about his background are the economics faculty and his 19 students, and no one has protested the presence of an intelligence officer on campus. "I haven't hidden anything from anybody," Watson says. His students confirm that he revealed his CIA career, at least in general terms, on the first day of class. But they don't seem especially interested in the agency or Watson's role in it. After all, most of them were only about 10 years old when the Cold War ended.

"I haven't learned that much about the CIA--he just doesn't talk about it all that much," Carollo says. She's heard that Watson's specialty is economic analysis, but says that "I honestly don't know exactly what he does."

Tyler Cunningham, a senior economics major in the class, says, "I don't really have a view about the CIA, whether they're necessary or a bad entity, or anything like that. I could honestly care less. Even if they are an evil, they're probably a necessary one."

Students weren't always so ambivalent about the CIA's involvement with their schools. For the first 20 years of the agency's operations, CIA-academic collaboration flourished, with a virtual revolving door cycling Ivy League professors in and out of the spy service. But in 1967, the cozy relationship soured when radical magazine Ramparts exposed the CIA's secret funding of the National Student Association, the largest student group in the United States. Alerted to the hidden hand of the agency, college activists launched a CIA Off Campus movement that has existed in one form or another ever since.

The movement reached its pinnacle in the mid-1980s, during widespread protests against the Reagan administration's policies toward Central America and South Africa. At scores of colleges across the country, students picketed and shouted down CIA recruiters. One year at UNC, for example, activists tried to physically bar a recruiter from conducting interviews on campus.

"The students actually blocked the entry room doors and chained themselves to chairs," remembers Marcia Harris, director of UNC's Department of Career Services. Campus police removed the activists, but evidently the tactic paid off. The next year, Harris says, "CIA chose not to conduct their interviews on campus," using a local hotel conference room instead. This fall, Harris says, CIA recruiters tabled three UNC career fairs without incident.

Even as the anti-CIA movement picked up speed, the agency took a new step to infiltrate higher education. In 1985, the agency launched its Officer in Residence program, dispatching active-duty CIA officers to universities for two-year teaching stints. "In defending the nation and our liberties, the federal government needs to have recourse to the best minds in the country, including those in the academic community," then CIA Deputy Director Robert Gates said, in a 1986 speech at Harvard University. "The university community cannot prosper and protect freedom of inquiry oblivious to the fortunes of the nation."

Currently there are 10 officers in residence, according to Carlos D. Davis, deputy director of the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence, which administers the program. They are teaching at George Washington University, Georgetown University, the University of Southern California, the University of Maryland, New Mexico State University, Marquette University, the Defense Intelligence Agency's Joint Military Intelligence College and the Air Force and Naval Academies. The agency has also placed officers at Georgia Tech and West Point for next semester.

"Every one of them has fully declared that they are from the CIA," Davis says. A CIA summary of the program asserts that "there is nothing clandestine about an officer's assignment as a visiting faculty member." Officers are banned from recruiting activities and gathering intelligence on students or faculty. "The CIA ensures that these officers are exactly what they say they are: professionals abiding by the rules of the host university," the document says.

Watson, whose commitment to UNC is for a single semester, says that although he is not teaching under the auspices of the Officer in Residence program, he operates under similar restrictions. "I have carefully not recruited," he says. Carollo, the student who asked for employment tips, said that all Watson gave her was a generic description of the agency's hiring criteria.

Watson says that he is "obligated to have no contact with the agency with regard to the course." But he is able to bring some insight and information from his CIA work into the classroom, and counts it as a plus for his students. "We have some of the best data, some of the best international trade and economic information, all of which is from openly available sources, but we have the ability to gather it all into a conveniently used format."

Watson's students say that the best thing their professor has to offer is his real-world experience. "It's refreshing to find an economist that actually has a job outside of academia," Cunningham says.

Scholar or spy?

Jonathan Knight is an associate secretary for the American Association of University Professors in Washington, D.C., which often represents faculty interests on campus. Knight specializes in professional ethics.

"CIA has an orientation toward secrecy, which, to say the least, is very different from the orientation of a university," Knight says.

Still, in regard to Watson's case, "I don't see that there are issues it creates, as long as everything is open and above board," Knight says. He compares the situation to that of business executives who teach classes but maintain secrets about their work to protect corporate property rights. This sounds like a "mutually beneficial arrangement" for the CIA and UNC, Knight says, "unless the individual is acting surreptitiously and is there for some purpose other than teaching."

Watson's acceptance by his students may be a measure of how much things have changed on campus since the heady days when the CIA could do no right. But for some, the issue of trust has not gone away.

Dennis Markatos, a senior economics and international studies major who co-founded the activist group Students United for a Responsible Global Environment, says students just can't trust the CIA to make full disclosures about what it's doing on campus.

"This is a spy agency, a secret agency, so we don't know what exactly he's doing, what sort of capacity he is in," says Markatos, who is not in Watson's class. "Is he just a friendly professor? Or is he collecting information to figure out if, later on, CIA can use UNC-Chapel Hill's economics department?"

Watson says no one has brought that argument to him personally, but he's ready to defend the agency's academic initiatives, should anyone question them. "I think it's wrong to have secrets in an academic environment," Watson says. "But secrets are not part of the class material. I frankly can't imagine a circumstance where there is anything secretive or confidential about my background that would interfere. I think I see the point; I don't see the actual contradiction."

Anthony Braxton, an economics major in the class, says that he sees little room for CIA machinations, since Watson has "an economic point of view, not a political one--maybe if it was a political science class there might be some conflict." His classmates, in general, agree.

"I think there are a good number of things that the agency can be legitimately criticized for, and has been," Watson says. But he maintains that the CIA gets a bad rap--blamed for its failures while unheralded successes must remain secret. "The problem is, any of the covert activities I know about, if knowledge about them were generally out, they would be completely ineffective and disappear. It's a damn shame. This is not putting itch powder in people's beards or exploding cigars or any of that sort of stuff. It's very sophisticated, effectively handled [operations]--the kind of things that you would suggest the U.S. government ought to do."


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