Archive | June, 2016

The Challenges of Teaching Intelligence Studies

28 Jun

This post is based on a short presentation I gave as part of a job interview at the International Politics department of Aberystwyth University. I didn’t get the position, but I am very grateful to Jenny Mathers and the rest of the InterPol department for the chance to visit Aberystwyth. 

In addressing the question of what are the challenges of teaching intelligence studies, I’d like to focus on four main challenges that I see as significant. These obviously are not the be all and end all, but are succinct summaries of key issues that I see as affecting how and why we teach.

spooksI’d argue that one of the main challenges is addressing student expectations of what intelligence is. These expectations are at least in part formed by a lifetime of exposure to popular cultural interpretations of intelligence, such as television programmes like Alias, Spooks, 24, and The Night Manager, the Bourne films, video games like the Metal Gear Solid series, and so on and so forth. As much as we in academia would like to think otherwise, films like Bridge of Spies, the Mission Impossible series, and Burn After Reading seem to have a much greater impact on the way people think about intelligence in the wider world than our publications in scholarly journals, conference papers, or blog posts. Oh how I wish it were otherwise!

So, it’s vital to demonstrate that the realities of intelligence are at the same time more pedestrian and more exciting than any film, television programme, video game, or book. For example, while intelligence analysis is a vital component of what intelligence is, it’s dull, painstaking, and often long-winded. I’m not sure a real time programme that involves watching analysts pour over decrypted emails would get quite the same viewing figures as Jack Bauer torturing and killing his way around the world. On the other hand, the career of Oleg Penkovsky or the story of Able Archer ’83 is far more thrilling than any fictional accounts. Able Archer ’83 in particularly informative. The way in which Soviet intelligence gathering that was at its heart based on faulty and often false assumptions about NATO intentions towards the USSR led us closer to nuclear war than any time since the Cuban crisis is a fascinating story. Tales of KGB and GRU officers wandering the streets of London and Brussels at 2 in the morning looking for excessive numbers of lights on in government offices never fails to catch the interest of students.

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The US, the UK, and Europe

16 Jun

This piece originally appeared on the LSE’s European Politics and Policy blog on April 21, 2016. The only alterations are to place Barack Obama’s letter in the past tense.

obamaIn an open letter in the Daily Telegraph on April 21, President Barack Obama reflected on history and our contemporary world to definitively support continued British membership of the EU. Obama commented that with all the complex challenges faced by Britain, America, and many other nations, this was a time for “friends and allies to stick together”. The president had previously suggested that his administration favours continued British EU membership, commenting that the European single market is good for both the UK and the US economies.

To what extent was Obama’s expected intervention on the ‘remain’ side driven by economic interests? Matters of finance have certainly been big stories. In a recent open letter to The Times, a collective of former US Treasury Secretaries opined that “A vote to leave Europe represents a risky bet on the country’s economic future.” US trade representative Michael Froman stated that should Britain withdraw from the single market, the US would be manifestly disinterested in a separate UK-UK trade agreement. The preference it seems is for bloc agreements such as the controversial Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Historically, however, the US stance on Britain’s position in an integrated Europe has been influenced by a much wider array of factors than just trade and economics. Indeed, as Obama alluded to, the same is true today, even though it is the economic aspects that dominate the headlines.

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Prohibition and Boxing in Inter-war America

11 Jun
louis_owens

Above: Joe Louis and Jesse Owens

The two most recent episodes of the American History Too! podcast that I co-host with Mark McLay have covered critical issues in inter-war America. In May we examined the thorny issue of prohibition. Why did it happen? What were the results? Who did it affect? Do bans on alcohol and drugs ever really have any effect?

Most recently, we’ve looked at the intertwined issue of race and sport in the 1930s, with a particular focus on boxer Joe Louis and track superstar Jesse Owens. We were joined by a good friend of the podcast, Fraser McCallum of the Imperial War Museum. Fraser has made fantastic contributions to two previous podcasts, on the JFK assassination and the 1925 Scopes Trial. It was a sad coincidence that the day after we recorded this episode, the great Muhammad Ali – another sporting figure who challenged and transcended the boundaries of racism – passed away.

You can keep up to date with American History Too! on our website, Facebook page, and Twitter account. You can also download all of the podcast episodes from i

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