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Home / USA News / CIA Looks to Colleges for Future Spies

CIA Looks to Colleges for Future Spies

To the list of collegiate types — nerds, jocks, Greeks — add one more: spies in training. The government is hoping they’ll be hard to spot.

The Obama administration has proposed the creation of an intelligence officer training program in colleges and universities that would function much like the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps run by the military services. The idea is to create a stream “of first- and second-generation Americans, who already have critical language and cultural knowledge, and prepare them for careers in the intelligence agencies,” according to a description sent to Congress by Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair.

In recent years, the CIA and other intelligence agencies have struggled to find qualified recruits who can work the streets of the Middle East and South Asia to penetrate terrorist groups and criminal enterprises. The proposed program is an effort to cultivate and educate a new generation of career intelligence officers from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds.

Under the proposal, part of the administration’s 2010 intelligence authorization bill, colleges and universities would apply for grants that would be used to expand or introduce courses of study to “meet the emerging needs of the intelligence community.” Those courses would include certain foreign languages, analysis and specific scientific and technical fields.

The students’ participation in the program would probably be kept secret to prevent them from being identified by foreign intelligence services, according to an official familiar with the proposal.

Students attending participating colleges and universities who agree to take the specialized courses would apply to the national intelligence director for admittance to the program, whose administrators would select individuals “competitively” for financial assistance. Much like the support provided to those in the military programs, the financial assistance could include “a monthly stipend, tuition assistance, book allowances and travel expenses,” according to the proposal. It also would involve paid summer internships at one or more intelligence agencies.

Applicants to the intelligence training program would have to pass a security background investigation, although it is unclear when they would have to do so. Students who receive a certain amount of financial assistance would be obligated to serve in an intelligence agency for the same length of time as they received their subsidy.

Students in the military programs typically participate for all four years of college, but the intelligence program would seek to recruit sophomores and juniors.

Through grants to colleges and universities, intelligence agencies have been building partnerships with academia and specific professors, some of whom in past decades served as channels for recommending applicants to the CIA and other intelligence agencies. The intelligence community already has a Centers of Academic Excellence Program that funds programs in national security studies at more than 14 colleges and universities, with a goal of having 20 participating schools by 2015. The programs receive between $500,000 and $750,000 a year.

The intelligence officer training program would build on two earlier efforts. One was a pilot program, first authorized in 2004, for as many as 400 students who took cryptologic training and agreed to work for the National Security Agency or another intelligence agency for each year they received financial assistance. That program will be replaced by the new one because cryptology is not as needed as it once was.

A second program provided financial assistance to selected intelligence community employees who agreed to study in specialized academic areas in which officials believed there were analytic deficiencies.

Named the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program, after the Kansas Republican who chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, over the past four years it has provided funds to some 800 students and current employees.

The director of national intelligence would make the Roberts program permanent under the new proposal and expand it beyond analysts to include personnel in acquisition, science and technology. It also could be used to help recruit employees by reimbursing them for prior education in critical areas.

Walter Pincus

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