Secrets, Spies, and Liberty

Tisch College Faculty Fellow Jeffrey Taliaferro’s new course will tackle some of the most controversial issues in intelligence and national security.

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Earlier this year, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released up to 200,000 classified documents to the press and jumpstarted a national conversation about the nature and scope of the nation’s spying programs. Since then, some have condemned Snowden as a despicable traitor who betrayed his country’s secrets and others have hailed him as a hero who exposed illegal and immoral activities.

Others, like Tufts political science professor and Tisch College Faculty Fellow Jeff Taliaferro, have taken a more nuanced approach: denouncing Snowden’s actions while acknowledging that he shined a light on problematic aspects of the U.S. intelligence community.

“Frankly, after the revelations by Edward Snowden, whose actions I do not approve of in any way, there is a worry about overreach,” says Taliaferro, an experienced scholar of international security studies and U.S. foreign policy who has served on the D/CIA (the CIA Director’s) Historical Review Panel, an independent group comprised of distinguished historians, political scientists, and legal scholars that advises the agency on declassification.  There are also valid concerns, he says, about the tremendous growth of the various agencies and their increasing reliance on private contractors such as the one that employed Snowden.

While the leaks have certainly been a lightning rod for debate on these topics, it is important to remember, says Taliaferro, that contentious discussions about U.S. intelligence practices are hardly a recent phenomenon.

“Many of these debates about where you draw the line between national security and individual liberty, and about the role of congressional oversight, these are questions that have recurred again and again since the late 1940s,” says Taliaferro. “What has changed is the threat environment and the technology, but the underlying debates have not.”

As a way to educate Tufts students about these debates, this spring semester Taliaferro will teach “Intelligence and National Security,” a course he developed as part of his Faculty Fellow project. The class, geared toward political science and international relations majors, will be a comprehensive study of the nation’s intelligence activities over the past decades, particularly as the focus has shifted from dealing with emerging states to preventing mass-casualty terror attacks.

“The course is going to give students an overview of the study of intelligence as an emerging area in international relations, because there’s really been a resurgence in theorizing about intelligence,” says Taliaferro. “We will be going into the politics of intelligence collection and assessments, as well as delving into some of the classic cases of intelligence successes and failures during the Cold War.”

While Taliaferro emphasized that the syllabus is still subject to change, he did offer a preview of some of the topics he expects to cover. Students will learn about the CIA’s role in Operation AJAX, the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh; the intelligence work behind covert operations leading to regime change in Latin America; the case of CIA analyst Aldrich Ames, who sold secrets to the Soviet Union; and many other historical examples of significant intelligence work.

Of even greater interest, perhaps, will be examinations of more recent matters.

“We will move into more contemporary issues, like the so-called failure of CIA, FBI, and other intelligence agencies to ‘connect the dots’ before 9/11 and the reaction to that; the question of reforming the national intelligence community. We’ll also look at the faulty estimates regarding Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction,” says Taliaferro.

He will also use certain materials released by Snowden that reveal some extremely controversial practices. “I have some readings on UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles, i.e., drones] and targeted assassinations, electronic surveillance, cyber espionage, and cyber warfare,” he says.

Beyond greater knowledge of specific historical events or current controversies, however, Taliaferro hopes to give his students a comprehensive and nuanced view of what intelligence work is, how it intersects with other elements of the national security apparatus, and the many challenges that arise therein.

“Intelligence is a complex world, and the agencies—and the consumers of what they produce—always have to make tradeoffs; they’re always dealing with incomplete information and always dealing with uncertainty,” he says. “Trying to make assessments about the capabilities of other states, let alone non-state actors, is an incredibly difficult task.”

Taliaferro also hopes to have his pupils grapple with some of the important questions that have informed those aforementioned debates about intelligence work throughout the nation’s history.

“Can you draw this line between stealing other people’s secrets, which is what intelligence is, and trying to prevent others from stealing your secrets, which is what counterintelligence is?” he asks. “Is it good to inform the American people that this is what their government is doing in the name of mitigating the risk of attack at home and abroad? Is it good in terms of asking important questions of how to balance privacy and security?”

However, warns Taliaferro, students should not be surprised if, instead of finding definitive answers to those questions, the course simply forces them to struggle with many others.

“Some students may feel frustrated by that, and I want them to be frustrated.”

 

(Photo: Melody Ko/Tufts University)