Universities, Security and Intelligence

Universities, Security and Intelligence

On a grey and drizzly day in early November, I met Dr Liam Gearon for tea at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum so that we could talk about his work and his new book, the Routledge International Handbook of Universities, Security and Intelligence Studies.

Dr Gearon, an Associate Professor in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford and Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College, has had a career defined by interdisciplinarity. While his doctoral work was in English literature, throughout his career he become a specialist in the interdisciplinary study of religion in education; the Founder-Director of Oxford’s Philosophy, Religion, Education Research Group; and has worked to establish an interdisciplinary sub-field at the boundary of universities, security and intelligence studies.

These interdisciplinary roots shine through in the Handbook of Universities, Security and Intelligence Studies, as does Dr Gearon’s self-professed preference for “taking the historical perspective” in his quest to understand the dynamics of relationships between academia and intelligence services. His book, released in October 2019, has eight sections populated with chapters from guest authors, and tackles questions of intelligence ethics and intellectual framing while, for example, exploring the history of the Cambridge spy ring and perusing Stalin’s Library.

The idea for the book, and the gathering together of many of its contributing authors, stemmed from an international colloquium at Oriel College convened by Dr Gearon in 2017 which brought together practitioners and academics working in the intelligence sphere. Their efforts, led by Dr Gearon, have helped to establish a new subfield in intelligence and education studies which focuses on the relationship between the sectors, and how their cultures interconnect and influence one another.

In conversation, Dr Gearon highlighted blurred boundaries between the operating space of intelligence agencies and those working in intellectual and cultural spheres. Historically, this has meant that intelligence agencies interacted with those in both academia and literature – with examples from the literary world including the FBI’s monitoring of Hemingway’s visits to Cuba and the Zhivago Affair – where the CIA published a book deemed seditious in the Soviet Union. While this historic focus on the influence of literature has been slowly replaced by interest in the role of social media, the formative role universities play in intelligence agencies has remained a constant.

Dr Gearon describes those operating in academic spheres are both a potential source of knowledge and information for those in intelligence agencies, and a potential source of sedition. Governments view intellectuals and students as possible sources of cultural influence and leaders in protest; but are equally aware of the value of intellectual capital in an era when 80-90% of intelligence is open source. With this in mind, following 9/11, George W Bush invested in university centres which prepare and help streamline students into roles with the CIA while increasing diversity in intelligence.  Meanwhile, in Britain, Dr Gearon describes university campuses as having been home to spies and earmarked as prime recruiting ground for intelligence agencies. He further notes that those recruited to intelligence services from elite institutions are likely to return to the elite intellectual spheres at the other end of their careers, giving the example of Baroness Manningham-Buller, a former intelligence officer now working in senior roles with Imperial College London and the Wellcome Trust. The boundaries between intelligence and intellectual pursuit are accordingly blurred, with many of the same actors present in both spaces.

The themes from our teatime chat echoed throughout the two chapters Dr Gearon contributed to the Handbook of Universities, Security and Intelligence Studies. One chapter, Landscape of Lies in the Land of Letters, explores the literature of security and intelligence – emphasizing that authors and academics are influential forces in the war of ideas, while exploring the entanglement of spy fact and fiction in series like the James Bond novels. Meanwhile, his other contributed chapter focuses on the nexus between universities, security and intelligence. Here, Dr Gearon emphasizes the securitisation and intelligence-sensitivity of research findings in the science and technology sectors, mirroring the realities reflected in the CNPI’s ongoing Trusted Research campaign, while highlighting the diversity of challenges facing those operating in these spheres today. This includes operational, epistemological, ethical, and existential challenges. Those operating in this space also encounter difficulties in determining the line between covert and overt, and in responding to the spin-off human challenges posed by technological problems. As security and intelligence agencies seek to manage and respond to these challenges, Dr Gearon’s work makes it clear that the overlapping boundaries between the worlds of intelligence and academia will continue to be vital as societies seek to anticipate existential threats, and to develop the foresight to focus not merely upon knowledge of the known, but also upon possible, potential, and prospective enemies and threats.

The Routledge International Handbook of Universities, Security and Intelligence Studies is now available for rent or purchase online or in hardback from Routledge.

This post was written by Kate McNeil, PaCCS Communications Officer.