Buried in a just published Washington Post exposé on the expansion of spying operations by the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) is a sentence that should send shivers down the spine of any researcher, journalist, student or scholar working in the Muslim world, regardless of whether she or he is an American citizen:
“Having DIA operatives pose as academics or business executives requires painstaking work to create those false identities, and it means they won’t be protected by diplomatic immunity if caught.”
I’m glad to know it takes “painstaking work” to create the “false” identity of a scholar (it’s most likely not as hard to fake being a businessman, given the CIA’s long history of using front companies for its espionage activities). But I have little doubt that the US intelligence and defence communities would do so if they believed such a cover could help better collect and/or produce actionable intelligence. Indeed, it’s quite likely they wouldn’t need to fake it, as there are likely many “scholars” who would willingly sign up for the job.
[…] One might ask, given the far greater levels of violence in which the intelligence community and military are involved, is the (re)joining of scholars and spies really worth getting up in arms about?
Yes, it is.
It’s hard enough to go to a region of the world where one’s government is engaged either in violent activities through war, occupation or drone activities (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen), supports the oppressive policies of the local government (Morocco, Bahrain, Israel, Egypt, etc) or as bad, is actively engaged in espionage against it (Iran, Sudan), and try to win the trust of social, religious and/or political activists who would naturally be on the radar of their own and foreign intelligence services. Such relationships will be even harder, if not nearly impossible, to develop if it becomes known that the US government is actively using scholars (and, we can presume, journalists) as covers for intelligence operatives.
Equally bad would be the agreement by universities, without the consent or even knowledge of their faculty and students, to provide covers for clandestine intelligence operatives, thereby putting legitimate scholars at risk without them having any idea of their so being. Such a situation would permanently taint every scholar engaged in research in the field in the Muslim majority world, or with diaspora Muslim communities in Europe or North America.
However it is done, such practices would undoubtedly make it well-nigh impossible either to produce the kind of well-researched and objective knowledge that is crucial for accurate policy-making by governments, or to know when the research being produced is done explicitly to promote clandestine strategic ends, or is in fact deliberate disinformation or is otherwise tainted as the product of espionage or otherwise clandestine activities. [++]