Tag Archives: CIA

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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

The Vela Incident and Proliferation

2 Jan

Nuclear history is chock full of the strange, the never-quite-adequately explained, and the conspiratorial.(1) A fascinating example of this is the September 1979 ‘Vela Incident.’ This is kind of vaguely related to my thesis work, as it impinges on nuclear proliferation (kind of.)

The Velas were a series of U.S. satellites designed to detect clandestine nuclear testing. They used what are known as ‘bhangmeters’ (plus a bunch of other uber-scientific doohickeys) to pick up the unique ‘double flash’ given off by a nuclear explosion. The satellite in question, Vela 6911, was over ten years old in September 1979. On the 22nd, it picked up a double flash in the South Atlantic, far, far away from any land (apart from the remote, French-owned Kerguelen Islands.) Heads were scratched on a global scale, committees were convened, much sweat poured forth.(2)

Continue reading

Nixon, Intelligence, and the Indian Bomb

23 Dec

‘The most peculiar and haunted of presidents’ is going to be a quixotic figure in any field of study.(1) Nixon and Henry Kissinger – the man most closely associated with the president and his policies – are sources of endless fascination for the scholar and layperson alike.

In my own field, the relationship between the two men and the idea of nuclear proliferation is no less enthralling than any of the other areas in which they involved themselves. Both had little time for the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and non-proliferation activities in general, as their sights were firmly set on the ‘big picture’ policies of détente with the Soviet Union, the normalisation of relations with the People’s Republic of China, the Middle East peace process, Vietnam, and the ‘Year of Europe.’

Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: