When classes at the University of Washington resume this fall, some students at the school will be under the watchful eye of a Central Intelligence Agency spook. In fact, some of them will even be learning from him.
This fall, Dr. Tim Thomas, a CIA agent specializing in "open source" data mining, will begin a two-year stint as an officer-in-residence at the UW's Institute for National Security Education and Research (INSER), which is financed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That office is an umbrella organization for groups such as the U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the CIA—which will provide the university with $2.5 million in grant money over the next five years.
It's not unusual for political or military organizations to recruit on campuses, but it seems strange for the UW to align itself with an agency most recently in the news for overseas kidnappings and harsh interrogation tactics such as waterboarding.
INSER focuses on so-called "open source" intelligence—gathering information from publicly available documents, newspapers, TV shows, and blogs in other countries. Under Thomas's tutelage, students will learn the fine art of data mining and intelligence gathering, and discuss U.S. foreign policy and the strategic differences between the cold war and the war on terror.
"It's the kind of expertise we didn't particularly have here," says Bob Roseth, director of the Office of News and Information at UW. [Thomas has] been vetted very thoroughly. He's not just any CIA agent."
While INSER focuses more on information retrieval and intelligence gathering than espionage, the UW has kept the program fairly quiet. INSER has been around since January 2007, but faculty members—including UW spokesman Norm Arkans—were unable to provide many details about the program. What's more, students don't appear to be aware that intelligence agencies are present on campus.
"A lot of the stuff goes on... behind closed doors, so people don't find out about it," says Liz Biskar, chapter leader of UW's Campus Radical Women group. Biskar, a junior majoring in political science, hadn't heard about INSER and says she's opposed to the presence of a CIA agent on campus. "Historically, the CIA has been involved in some really horrible things. I don't think it's something [that] should be [happening] on campus."
This certainly isn't the first time UW has been behind a controversial on-campus program. In 2001, members of the Earth Liberation Front firebombed the university's Center for Urban Horticulture—which members believed was genetically engineering trees—causing $7 million in damages. In 2008, PETA led a march on the school's primate testing labs to protest surgeries the lab was doing on animals. And several years ago, community opposition killed plans to open a biological defense lab near the school's Seattle campus and to build an underground physics lab in Leavenworth.
The last time the CIA tried to get involved in academia in Seattle, the agency was run out of town. In 1991, protestors rallied at Seattle University after the school offered a CIA agent a job as a history teacher. Eventually, the school's faculty voted to rescind the job offer because of the CIA's "notorious record of illegal and dishonest conduct both at home and abroad," a faculty member wrote at the time.
Despite the CIA's controversial history in and out of academia—and that INSER is clearly designed to train and recruit the next generation of data miners—the UW administration doesn't seem concerned that INSER will become a recruiting ground for the CIA. "I think there are students that will take courses in this area that could end up in intelligence," UW's Roseth says. "But there's a broad field of people who do this that aren't in the intelligence community." The CIA, Roseth adds, is "trying to... address some of the past failures of the agency."
Dr. Thomas was not available to talk about the curriculum for his course or address concerns about the CIA's presence on campus.