By Fernando Peinado
At a recent SIPA event, panelists and attendees got nervous when someone in the audience started taking pictures in an unusual way. “Some people I talked to after the panel, told me they thought that person was a spy, but we could not find out. It may well have been paranoia”, said a SIPA professor who spoke to The Morningside Post on condition of anonymity because he thinks he may be spied on by the government of the country he does research on.
While most of the SIPA community never considers the potential presence of spies on campus, some are concerned they might be hiding among us.
Indeed, our school is a “very fertile ground” for foreign agents looking to recruit spies because so many students and faculty work for governments, according to assistant professor Austin Long, who teaches a course on counterintelligence.
The professor TMP interviewed anonymously about the panel event said he was certain of two incidents involving spies on campus but did not want to go into much detail about them.
Columbia, like other American universities, has been a target of international espionage going back at least to the Cold War, but according to the FBI, “foreign adversaries” are increasing their efforts to penetrate US campuses as their student populations have become more global in recent years. Their goal is to acquire information and technology to gain political, military, and economic advantages, according to a 2011 FBI white paper on espionage at American universities.
Frank Figliuzzi, the FBI assistant director for counterintelligence, said last year in an interview with Bloomberg news agency that the FBI is assessing university presidents on how to tackle the issue of espionage. TMP asked the University administration to comment on this cooperation, but received no response. SIPA interim dean, Robert Lieberman, declined to be interviewed on the subject.
In principle, the idea of working as a spy for the US is clearly one that our school community accepts. The CIA successfully recruits at SIPA and a month ago, there were flyers all over the 6th floor in plain sight. But according to experts on counterintelligence, there also exists a black job market carried out by foreign intelligence services at American policy schools. So, how does this recruitment work?
Potential recruits include American students who may go into positions in the CIA or the military and professors who advise the US government, said professor Long, himself an advisor of the Department of Defense.
But foreign agents may also approach international students at SIPA, according to Long.
“Chinese intelligence services may be interested in recruiting somebody in India that two years later will work for the Indian police”, he said.
Russia, China, Iran and Cuba are the most active countries spying on American campuses, Long said. The latter two may be of less concern at Columbia because the student population from those countries is relatively low, he added.
Professor Long said that recruitment of students as foreign spies is intended as a long term investment.
One example was Lidya Guryeva, a Russian spy who was pursuing an MBA degree at Columbia Business School. She was arrested and deported in 2010.
According to the FBI, Guryeva was instructed to dig up personal data of those students who apply (or are hired already) for a job at the CIA.
The approach to obtaining information is similar to collecting grains of sand. “They may spend years targeting an individual, and develop a relationship whereby the student or professor provides information, either wittingly or unwittingly, to the foreign country” according to the FBI 2011 white paper.
Sometimes, as in the case of Guryeva, spies are sent by foreign government to study at American universities. But often foreign agents approach students on campus events or during activities at their consulates, according to Long.
New York is one of only a couple of cities in the US where many foreign governments have an official diplomatic missions and that provides cover to foreign agents who may be assigned in the US with a title that may sound innocuous such as “second cultural attaché”, Long said.
In other occasions, foreign agents pose as businessmen, journalists, students or visiting professors, he added.
Other activities of foreign intelligence services include using students or visiting professors to collect sensitive research and information about faculty and students, according to the FBI.
The SIPA professor who agreed to speak anonymously to TMP said he thinks the country he does research on, which he declined to allow TMP to mention, builds personal files of US university faculty. Critics may be banned from visiting that country, he said.
Students from countries where freedom of expression is limited might also be monitored, according to experts. Certainly, some students at our school are well aware of that possibility. “Some Chinese students at SIPA are concerned that their activities here in New York may be known by the Chinese government because they think that may affect their future somehow”, said Hongxiang Huang a Chinese second-year MPA-DP student.
Professor Long cautions against excessive actions to combat espionage at American universities, such as restrictions on admissions on the basis of nationality or measures that could affect in any other way the open environment of US campuses.
As the FBI white paper put it, most foreign students, researchers, or professors studying or working in the United States are here for legitimate and proper reasons: “Only a very small percentage is actively working at the behest of another government or organization”.
Besides, Long said most information collection done by foreign missions in the US is legal and should be distinguished from espionage in a proper sense.
Probably, the best advice is to be aware of the potential presence of spies but not to breed paranoia. As Long said, most of what is said or happens at our University is not of interest in Moscow or Beijing: “This kind of spies are not interested in knowing who gets tenure or who sleeps with whom”.