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[liberationtech] Catch-22: When Government Tells Professors What Not to Teach

Yosem Companys companys at
Wed Feb 5 13:19:13 PST 2014

February 3, 2014

Catch-22: When Government Tells Professors What Not to Teach
Teaching a course on intel & national security when your students are
legally forbidden to read & discuss materials

By Mary Manjikian

How do you teach a course when many of your students are legally
forbidden to read and discuss the materials? That situation arose
recently in a graduate seminar on "Intelligence and National

Like many universities, mine draws a portion of its students from the
military. We pride ourselves on being "military friendly," and until
now it had been simple to adapt to these students' needs. Some take
incompletes if they are deployed halfway through a semester. Online
students sometimes request accommodations like reading articles
instead of downloading video, because of low bandwidth on aircraft
carriers or in encampments in Afghanistan. Sometimes students on
dangerous missions ask to opt out of class assignments that might
require revealing their identities on social media.

This year I faced a new dilemma: The U.S. government has explicitly
forbidden its employees who hold security clearances to read or
discuss materials that are technically classified but now in the
public domain thanks to Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning (formerly
known as Bradley Manning). The materials include hundreds of thousands
of U.S. Embassy cables available on WikiLeaks as well as documents
regarding the U.S. intelligence community's budgets, personnel, and
procedures. The list of people who may not read, discuss, or even
listen to discussion of these materials includes a significant number
of my students.

In a graduate program in homeland security, it seems only natural to
ask students to avail themselves of this information, since it is
relevant to our seminars on recruitment, intelligence reform, and
intelligence accountability. But by using these materials, I
jeopardize my students' future employment and career success.

Not only that: If I respect the restrictions and don't cover the
material, don't I rob the rest of the class of a valuable educational
opportunity? Is it fair to subject my civilian students who don't work
for the government to a form of censorship?

If I include the material, what about the students who may wish to opt
out? Don't they miss out if they do only half the reading or avoid
information that might challenge them and their worldviews the most?
Where do we draw the line between offering a legitimate accommodation
and allowing students to customize a course in such a way that their
educational experience is different from that of their peers?

Finally, should I really be tailoring my syllabus to conform with
national-security policy? If I were teaching in an American-university
program abroad and was told by foreign-government officials that my
students were not allowed to read certain materials, I would very
likely regard such advice as an attempt at censorship and a violation
of academic freedom.

Iam not alone in asking these questions. Recently I raised them in an
online discussion forum known as H-Intel. The forum's members include
intelligence analysts and practitioners as well as scholars both
military and civilian. The exchange showed that there is little
consensus on these matters. At military institutions like the Air
Force Institute of Technology, the decision about whether
public-domain but classified material can be used in courses is not
left up to instructors or students. Those institutions simply do not
include it.

Marc Warburton, director of the (civilian) Great Plains National
Security Education Consortium, at the University of Nebraska at
Lincoln, has decided not to discuss these materials in his class,
either. He notes that "it will be difficult for cleared personnel to
even talk about these revelations, as they will probably know
something of the programs discussed or know of similar sources and
methods that have not been revealed." He also recommends not leaving
the decision about what to use up to students themselves. Doing so, he
says, "puts them in the uncomfortable spot of choosing between being
prepared for class and disregarding Department of Defense policy,
which they ought not to do."

Glenn Sheffield, an instructor at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy
Special Warfare Center and School, says that "for military
personnel--or any DoD personnel--to access that material, on a personal
or a government system, violates policy and puts in jeopardy their
security clearances and their careers. I make that clear to my

The University of Maryland University College, a civilian institution
that is regarded as very military-friendly, has reached a somewhat
innovative solution. In its email newsletter on cybersecurity,
material that contains classified information is marked with an
asterisk, and it is then up to the individual student to decide
whether to keep reading. Peter Oleson, an adjunct associate professor
there, says that "it's not a perfect solution, but it seems to balance
sensitivity to government concerns and academic freedom."

Other academics point to the dangers of allowing government policies
to dictate an academic process, including students' future research
agendas. James Pfiffner, director of the Ph.D. program at George Mason
University's School of Public Policy, says: "Our U.S. students working
for our military or intelligence agencies who follow the rules will be
at an information disadvantage by not having information that our
allies and enemies have."

Kristian Gustafson, deputy director of Brunel University's Centre for
Intelligence and Security Studies, in London, notes that "the UK
classification system doesn't offer any of these (perhaps nonsensical)
penalties for looking at what everyone else can read in their daily
broadsheet." He argues that since foreign scholars are carefully
examining these materials (including revelations regarding American
spying on allies), the United States should be examining and studying
these materials as well. He adds that these materials "inform
important moral debates that scholars of intelligence need to engage

And as Peter Oleson says, "In an academic context, I fear that if the
security community can enforce a 'no read' ban on such materials, what
else can it decide to ban for whatever reason?"

Mark Stout, a lecturer in global-security studies at the Johns Hopkins
University, raises a related issue. In some cases, he says, his
students might pre-emptively constrain their own reading material.
Even before the Snowden revelations, a student might have decided not
to look at a terrorist website, for example, out of fear that doing so
might jeopardize a security clearance that he or she wanted or might
want in the future. Students' avoidance of writing theses or
dissertations on potentially controversial topics because of worries
about their government-job prospects has implications for the field as
a whole.

The current situation has, in Stout's word, "flummoxed" many of
today's intelligence scholars. But it has also inspired creative
workarounds. At George Mason, faculty members--including Gen. Michael
V. Hayden, a former director of the National Security Agency and the
Central Intelligence Agency--have turned to fictional sources like spy
novels, films, and television shows to provide examples for
discussion. The thinking is that since events being discussed are (in
theory) fictional, civilian and military students alike will be able
to speculate and discuss at will, without worrying about having
violated any security restrictions.

Similarly, Rear Adm. Larry Baucom, an adjunct professor at Regent
University, suggests that faculty members use sources like
autobiographies by members of the intelligence services. Because such
sources are vetted before being published, anything potentially
compromising has already been removed.

Michael Fowler, an assistant professor of military and strategic
studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy, advises focusing on the general
issues raised by these security leaks without necessarily referring to
specific cables or documents. "I find it useful to discuss the ethics
involved," he says. "Is there a threshold where leaking government
secrets is ethical though illegal? When is it OK to collect
intelligence on your allies? Are some collection methods more ethical
than others? And what is the appropriate balance between personal
privacy and security?"

My own feelings are mixed. I'm a former U.S. Foreign Service officer
and am married to a retired Army officer. I have taught at both
military and civilian institutions, and I believe that all of us, as
Americans, have a duty to protect the safety of our troops and the
integrity and competitiveness of our military.

I know what happens when a powerful state makes academic policies and
there is no organized forum for questioning or opposing them.

But my earlier academic pursuits focused on the politics of the former
Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. And in my most recent book, I
described how scientists in China have been affected by state policies
regarding the distribution of funding. In other words, I know what
happens when a powerful state makes academic policies and there is no
organized forum for questioning or opposing them.

I also worry about accreditation and how these developments might
affect the transfer of credits from military to civilian institutions.
Can a military course that knowingly excludes significant parts of the
national-security curriculum be considered comparable to a civilian
course that does not? Is it wrong to issue students transfer credits
in that situation?

This is why scholarly organizations such as the International Studies
Association and the American Political Science Association need to
develop guidelines about the rights and responsibilities of political
scientists in adhering to or opposing U.S. national-security
directives. We need clear policies about what materials will and will
not be published and excerpted in academic journals, and how transfer
credits from military universities will be treated when a course
differs significantly from that taught in a civilian institution.

Scholars need to take the lead in engaging with this debate so that
our policies are proactive rather than reactive, as well as fair and

Mary Manjikian is associate dean of the Robertson School of Government
at Regent University.

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