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UNM doubles down on relationship with CIA

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

America’s premiere spy agency is setting up shop at UNM.

Starting next school year, an active-duty CIA intelligence officer will be embedded on the University of New Mexico’s campus. The officer will carry a teaching or research load comparable to his faculty colleagues and – to the extent possible – participate in the academic life of the university just like his colleagues, according to the contract between UNM and the Central Intelligence Agency.

“A CIA officer will teach at UNM beginning this fall as part of the Agency’s Visiting Intelligence Officers Program,” said Chelsea Robinson, a spokeswoman for the CIA, which declined an interview for this story. “This effort – along with CIA’s Signature School Program – enables UNM students to learn firsthand about national security and career opportunities at CIA.”

The new “resident intelligence officer” program is just the latest development in a decadeslong relationship between UNM and the CIA. In addition to a CIA employee soon joining the campus community, the UNM president recently decided to keep the school involved in an ongoing CIA recruiting program, according to copies of two Memoranda of Understanding agreements between UNM and the CIA.

UNM student protesters forced the CIA to cancel a recruitment event at the Student Union in 1988. (Jeff Alexander/Albuquerque Journal)

The CIA has a history of hiring graduates of New Mexico’s flagship university and, in 2016, UNM was the first school in the country to join the CIA’s “signature schools” program, which formalizes a path for the agency to recruit students.

But the relationship, at times, has been contentious. And some UNM faculty contend the rekindled relationship between UNM and the CIA could jeopardize the safety and access of students and faculty who do research in South and Central America.

In 1988, UNM student protesters chanting “Hey, hey, CIA, how many people did you kill today?” rushed a recruitment presentation by the spy agency in the Student Union, prompting recruiters to cancel the event. CIA and American support for the rebel contras in Nicaragua was an ongoing controversy at the time. At one point in the late 1980s, UNM banned the agency from recruiting students on campus, though the ban was lifted after a short time, according to unclassified letters on the CIA’s website.

Late last month, UNM President Garnett Stokes extended the existing MOU between UNM and the CIA to keep the college in the agency’s “signature schools” program, in which the CIA pledges a broad range of recruitment activities at UNM. She signed the agreement despite concerns raised by some faculty members.

“I talked to a lot of people and I realized that this MOU has opened up opportunities for our students to consider careers they wouldn’t normally consider,” Stokes said in a recent interview. “By not signing the MOU we were going to lose those recruiters.”


How common is it for universities to have such working relationships with the CIA? That’s not entirely clear.

Sometimes, either a college or the CIA has issued a news release announcing the recruiting arrangement. But there can be rules within the contract that can affect what can be said publicly.

In UNM’s case, the contracts place restrictions on when and how the two entities can publicize or display the arrangement. UNM can’t display the MOU pertaining to the resident intelligence officer in a public forum or on its website, for example. The Journal obtained the contracts through an Inspection of Public Records Act request.

“I think this high visibility special program potentially puts students and faculty at risk when they conduct research abroad, especially in the developing world,” said William Stanley, the director of the Latin American and Iberian Institute. “The students are conducting independent, academic research that has nothing to do with the CIA.”

Stanley said the fact there is a formal agreement – even if not posted on the website – raises the potential visibility of UNM’s connection to the CIA.

But refusing to partner with the CIA could also have deep ramifications at UNM, said Emile Nakhleh, the director of UNM’s Global and National Security Policy Institute.

“By not signing the MOU, UNM might develop the reputation of being unfriendly to national security,” he said. “Which in turn might jeopardize research-based UNM MOUs with the national labs and other government and semi-government agencies.”


In 2016, then-CIA Director John Brennan gave a speech on campus, announcing that UNM would be the first school in the agency’s signature schools program.

UNM had, in part, two things the agency was looking for. One was its academics. The school does research in a wide variety of areas and has a national security program. The other is UNM’s students, who come from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds and speak multiple languages.

The signature schools program creates a more permanent and ongoing recruiting effort on campus, as opposed to the CIA occasionally meeting with interested students during recruiting events.

“UNM is so well situated to create the next generation of leaders in national security,” said Nakhleh, who worked with the CIA before coming to UNM. “The next generation (of national security leaders) has to reflect America. UNM with its diverse population, its first-rate academic programs, its proximity to the labs (in Albuquerque and Los Alamos). It is situated to uniquely produce the next generation of leaders in national security.”

Nakhleh said it’s not just students from one field of study who stand to benefit from the recruiting program. The CIA, he said, will recruit students from all sorts of backgrounds. They want accountants, engineers, linguists, history and culture experts, medical doctors and others, he said. And over the years, he said, the CIA has hired dozens of UNM graduates who have gone on to careers in the intelligence community.

“Our students for (national security) jobs have to compete against graduates from Georgetown, from (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), from Harvard, from Princeton,” he said. “This program enhances their competitive edge.”

As for the resident intelligence officer, who starts at UNM next month, Nakhleh said that will only increase UNM students’ chances of landing a job in national security. And he said there is nothing clandestine about the program.

The CIA officer and former Lobo is named David Berg. He has a doctorate in justice studies from Arizona State University; a master’s in criminal justice from Northern Arizona University; and a bachelor’s in criminology and psychology from UNM. He has been at the CIA since 2008, according to a biography provided by Nakhleh.

The plan is for him to teach undergraduate or graduate level courses in global and national security and also to advise students interested in careers in intelligence, Nakhleh said.

He’ll have to comply with both the UNM faculty handbook and the policies and procedures set by the Central Intelligence Agency, which will pay his salary, according to the contract.

Nakhleh said that by being in the signature schools program, the CIA pledges to send more recruiters to UNM’s campus, among other aspects of the agreement, than the agency would otherwise send to campus. And being in that program is what led to UNM’s getting a resident intelligence officer on campus, he said. The officer will be on campus for two years, according to the contract.

Safety concerns

Stanley of UNM’s Latin American and Iberian Institute said he and other faculty members shared their concerns about the formal arrangements in a meeting with Stokes about a month ago.

“I have no objection to the CIA recruiting on campus. I hope they hire UNM students,” Stanley said. “I’ve never understood a need for a ‘signature school’ program.”

Stanley said he has had students who have done work with people in parts of Peru affected by civil war. Others have gone to slums in Brazil for research on drug organizations and some scholars have examined demobilized combatants in post war situations.

How might that work be affected by the public nature of formal recruiting arrangements between UNM and the CIA? Many businesses and agencies recruit UNM students without formal contracts, he said.

“Our students conduct research with populations that would be very suspicious of someone they thought might be a U.S. government agent of some kind,” he said. “From my point of view, UNM should be maintaining some distance from an organization that has a reputation for intervention in the region.”

Stokes said prior to signing the agreement, she wanted to hear many points of view. The signature schools contract was originally signed in 2016 by former president Bob Frank, and the agreement that will bring Berg to campus in the fall was signed by former provost and acting president Chaouki Abdallah.

“What I understood was that it had been signed without a lot of faculty input. So what I did was I held onto the MOU and I asked for some feedback on it,” Stokes said. “I heard from a lot of people inside and outside of the institution.”

After listening to the feedback, she decided to extend the MOU.

Little publicity

If a lot of schools have contracts and agreements with the CIA similar to UNM, many of the schools are keeping the arrangements quiet.

Since UNM became the first signature school, very few have publicly identified themselves as such signature schools. Other than UNM, the CIA has only publicized signature schools partnerships at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Baruch College in New York City, according to CIA news releases.

CIA officers have taken visiting jobs at other universities, although it’s unclear how many. For example, Columbia University has a resident officer, according to its website, as does the University of Texas at Austin, according to a 2018 article in the student newspaper.

Stokes said she doesn’t think that such arrangements are rare.

“My understanding is that this has happened at other institutions,” she said.