The Chronicle Review

Taking Stock of the Ties That Bind Harvard’s Kennedy School and the CIA

September 21, 2017

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Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA, resigned as a nonresident senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs over the Kennedy School’s offer of a fellowship to Chelsea Manning. He is pictured at 2016 forum at the Kennedy School.
After Harvard University withdrew its offer of a visiting fellowship to Chelsea Manning last week, the dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Douglas W. Elmendorf, published a nearly 700-word statement explaining the decision. In that statement, which was part defense and part mea culpa, Elmendorf emphasized that the move was not meant as a "compromise between competing interest groups."

Elmendorf didn’t specifically mention the Central Intelligence Agency. He didn’t have to: The Kennedy School’s backpedal came hours after the director of the CIA, Michael Pompeo, publicly scolded Harvard for offering the fellowship to Manning, whom Pompeo called a traitor, and announced that he wouldn’t be showing up for a forum at the school. Michael J. Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA, also resigned as a nonresident senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs over the invitation to Manning. Harvard’s withdrawal of Manning’s fellowship offer was widely interpreted as caving to government pressure. Manning herself certainly thought so, firing back on Twitter that "the @cia determines what is and is not taught at @harvard."

While that might be a stretch, a forthcoming book, Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities (Henry Holt), by Daniel Golden, argues that the Kennedy School has a cozy, longstanding relationship with the CIA that is kept largely under wraps, even in some cases from its own faculty members. The book contends that U.S. intelligence services have ensconced themselves in universities, particularly since September 11, 2001, and that their presence leads to a tension between national security and academic freedom. In a chapter titled "Hidden in the Ivy," Golden unpacks an association between the Kennedy School and the CIA that goes back decades.

Some of what he points out is no secret: The Kennedy School has proved a prestigious landing place for CIA officials, including David Petraeus, a former director who is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center. But behind the scenes, Golden writes, the Kennedy School has an even deeper bond, including an understanding with the agency that allows undercover agents to attend its midcareer program without revealing their true identities to professors or fellow students. That practice, Golden contends, undermines its educational mission. "Its programs for future leaders are designed to overcome cultural differences and national prejudices through candid discussions with their counterparts from other countries about personal and work experiences," Golden writes. "A student inhibited by the need to protect a false identity can’t be completely frank."

Perhaps more important, he argues, it gives the CIA special access to students who may go on to hold elite positions in governments both in the United States and other countries. While there is a ban on covert recruiting at Harvard, an undercover CIA agent could form friendships with fellow students that might prove valuable later. "The CIA probably saw the invitation to Manning as a kind of betrayal, given that the CIA and the Kennedy School are in league in so many other ways," Golden said in an interview.

In a written statement, Kennedy School officials pushed back against Golden’s allegations. "Harvard Kennedy School does not knowingly provide false information or ‘cover’ for any member of our community from an intelligence agency," the statement said, "nor do we allow members of our community to carry out intelligence operations."

The statement went on to say that the school was "proud to train people from the U.S. government and the intelligence community, as well as peace activists and those who favor more open government."

Elmendorf, the dean, declined an interview request, but a former dean, Joseph Nye, characterized Golden’s allegations as much ado about not much. "The Kennedy School and other schools of public service have active CIA agents in their classes all the time," Nye said. The former dean said he thought Golden’s book was "trying to create some kind of scandal out of something that’s an openly declared program."

Nye, who was dean from 1996 to 2004, said it should shock no one that a CIA agent might pretend to be, say, a State Department official in order to be admitted to the Kennedy School. And he doesn’t think that’s necessarily a problem. "I don’t know that there’s an inhibition there other than disclosing their identity," Nye said.

But Nye said he had never heard of clandestine recruiting during his time as dean. Nor did any CIA agent, to his knowledge, disclose his or her identity to administrators and ask them to keep it secret — the scenario that Golden outlines as routine.


Another recent book also takes a swipe at the Kennedy School’s connection to the CIA. In Whistleblower at the CIA (City Lights), published last April, Melvin Goodman, a former CIA official and now an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University, writes that he was in charge of dealing with the Kennedy School in 1990, when he was still at the CIA. "I questioned the ethics of CIA relations with the Kennedy School, just as many Harvard professors have questioned their links to the CIA and tried unsuccessfully to kill the program," Goodman writes.

Elsewhere, Goodman has written that CIA-sponsored research at the Kennedy School in the 1990s was intended to portray the agency’s actions in a flattering light. "I assume the Kennedy School and CIA still have a close relationship but don’t know that for a fact," Goodman wrote by email.

Golden’s book contends that the close relationship continues. He cites instances of CIA agents’ attending the Kennedy School in recent years, though he doesn’t name the agents because doing so "might endanger their safety or U.S. interests."

According to Golden’s book, Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs refuses to accept undercover CIA agents, though it does accept agency analysts. (A spokeswoman for Princeton declined to confirm that supposed policy, saying the school doesn’t discuss its admissions process.)

"It is an interesting contrast between how the two of them approach it," Golden said. "I think it does say something greater about the choice that the Kennedy School has made, which is to be close to our intelligence agencies maybe at the cost of complete academic freedom and values."

Tom Bartlett is a senior writer who covers science and other things. Follow him on Twitter @tebartl.