Chris Hedges discusses the militarization of institutions for higher education with journalist Alexa O’Brien, in order to uncover the trail of money and influence that leads from the national security state to college programs in this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt.
Alexa O’Brien writes and researched about national security. O’Brien and journalist Bill Arkin co-authored a multi-month VICE News investigation into the most militarized universities in America.
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CHRIS HEDGES: Hi. I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt.
Today we’re going to be discussing the militarization of institutions of higher learning, the way these institutions have been reformed into not only vocational centers, but vocational centers that increasingly serve the interests of the security and surveillance state.
With me to discuss this issue is Alexa O’Brien. She researches and writes about the national security state. She coauthored a piece with William Arkin for VICE News into the top militarized universities in America.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Thank you for having me. It’s an honor.
HEDGES: So let’s look at what you did over this multi-month project, how you conducted your research, what it is you were looking for, and what it is you discovered.
O’BRIEN: So we took a sample of 90,000 educational and work backgrounds of members of the intelligence community with top-secret clearances and combined that with 51 additional factors related to security, academic, and scientific partnerships between institutions of higher education and the national security state, which broadly would be homeland security, military intelligence, and law enforcement, as well as federal funding for research and development with a national security interest to essentially rank the top 100 most militarized schools in the United States.
We had a difficult time with term militarized. You know, we thought, well, God, this is really about more than just the military or kinetic weapons; this is about intelligence, this is about cyber warfare, this is about information, law enforcement, and the like, homeland security. But we found that no term really could describe what we were seeing in these schools. So we settled on militarized.
HEDGES: And one of the things that I found fascinating is that among the very top schools are these for-profit, often online institutions that have catered to the quite specific needs of the national security apparatus.
O’BRIEN: Yeah. This is something that was very interesting to us, too. So 20 of the top 100 schools in our list are essentially predominantly online diploma mills. Twelve of those are for-profit colleges.
To explain this phenomenon, one has to look at the makeup of the intelligence community generally speaking. So here you have a breakdown of–less than 30 percent is government federal employees. Then you have 54 percent–the largest cohort is actually military people with top-secret clearances in our sample. And then, finally, you have 18 percent is contractor, so federal contractors.
In about 2009, the post-9/11 G.I. Bill for veterans and the Department of Defense Tuition Assistance Program really subsidized and helped to catalyze an explosion in these for-profit online schools.
HEDGES: What kind of numbers, what kind of costs are we talking about?
O’BRIEN: Well, if you look at the amount of funds from the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense between 2009 at 2014, you’re looking at around $19.5 billion. Half of that is going to these for-profit schools. And that’s just within military-related education.
So then you see that translating into the sample that we have, which represents 6 percent of the intelligence community with top-secret clearances. Okay?
Essentially, the second-rated school for top-secret employment in the intelligence community is American Military University,–
HEDGES: Which is?
O’BRIEN: –which is basically an online, solely online school. It’s part of the American Public University System. The name’s a little tricky there, because it’s actually a for-profit college. And more than half of its enrollment is military.
And schools like the American Military University and University of Phoenix, which has gotten a lot of notoriety and sort of infamy in the last year because of the DOD kicking them off of bases because of questionable marketing practices to military service members, as well as an investigation by the departments of Education and Justice into their marketing practices again, here you have schools that are populating our national security state from the military to the intelligence community that raise very important questions about the integrity of the degrees that these students are leaving these schools with.
HEDGES: Do I have it correct that in some cases the degree programs have been designed with assistance from, like, Homeland Security?
O’BRIEN: Yes. So, after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security was essentially mandated by Congress to establish an educational program, a curricula for homeland security studies. And there is a lot of controversy over the pedagogy of this particular program that essentially populates 250 schools–many of the schools on our list. So we saw in our investigation the growth of homeland security studies as a discipline. In fact, it’s one of the larger growth areas since 9/11.
And then, also, intelligence is a component of law enforcement. So when we look at the academic curricula of the intelligence community and the national security state, we’re not seeing a large population of people who are studying cultures or languages or public affairs or world affairs or anything that you would think a person would need to know in order to know about the world. What they’re studying, essentially, are information technology, systems management, business management, criminology, and intelligence, and homeland security. I mean, that’s what they’re studying.
I think one of the most important findings that we discovered, that was revealed in our investigation, was essentially less than 100 people out of a sample of 90,000–this sample represents great fidelity in what it reflects about our national security state and intelligence community–less than 100 people have degrees in Middle Eastern studies. Further to that, less than 1 percent identify themselves as Arab linguists. So this whole prevalent, common notion that after 9/11 the national security community had a boots-on-the-ground about-face and was interested in human intelligence, in human collection of intelligence, as well as language and cultural studies, is absolutely false.
HEDGES: This research that you did I think also has tremendous effect not just on these online degree-mill, for-profit programs which cater to homeland security and the intelligence community, but it’s also had a very negative effect, I think, within traditional institutions. The University of Maryland I believe is very high on your list.
O’BRIEN: Number one.
HEDGES: Number one, including many–what is it?–16 or 17 colleges all around the D.C. area that are now essentially feeder schools for the national security state. What has this done to more traditional schools and universities?
O’BRIEN: Well, I think what we see here is a shift. I think it would be important to note that the national security state has had a long history with U.S. academia. So we need to just acknowledge that. But this shift that’s occurring is what we see is essentially the second- and third-order effects of that relationship since the Cold War, so that now you have very tight affiliations between universities and the national security state, by which I mean the military, the intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement aspects of the national security state. So, for example, you have FBI campus liaisons, schools that are part, administrators that are part of DHS–.
HEDGES: What does that mean, a liaison? What do they do?
O’BRIEN: Well, what they do is ostensibly they are advising schools at how to handle situations like homeland security, terrorist attacks, active shooter situations.
But what you also have is campus police departments or administration officials who are liaisoning with fusion centers, JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force). You have the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board that is a consortium of university presidents who meets with the FBI. It was founded by the former FBI director Robert Mueller and the CIA to exchange information and expertise about terrorism, espionage, and the like.
HEDGES: On campuses.
O’BRIEN: Yeah. So what we see here is how is it transforming higher education. That’s what you ask.
These schools are essentially outposts of the national security state. They are so tied into the national security state that the investigation raises deeper questions: What happens to society when the university becomes an outpost of the national security state? What happens when the academy–and secondarily the philanthropic community–fails to establish a scholarship program within these institutions to cultivate the next generation or this generation of civilian scholars who can provide a genuine civilian counternarrative to the national security state? What happens to academic freedom or the things that are, of course, sort of, at least in theory, considered to be core issues within this important institution in civil society? What happens to these issues like academic freedom when you have a growth of classified research on campus, you have information-sharing with law enforcement? How does the training cycle itself that we see established within the military and intelligence community–so, for example, vocational training, learning how to service computers, as opposed to the humanities, where you’re learning analytical critical thinking skills or history or knowledge of the world generally–what happens to citizens when they are not able to develop these skills, or the intelligence community?
HEDGES: Well, you also–these universities, once they create these programs, become ruled by the dictates of internal security. So, for instance, if you’re having a discussion on campus about something that was revealed by WikiLeaks or released by Chelsea Manning, whose trial you so valiantly and effectively covered, it acts as a form of internal censorship on the campus, doesn’t it?
O’BRIEN: Absolutely. I mean, we see this phenomenon manifested recently with Bart Gellman at Purdue.
HEDGES: Bart Gellman being the Washington Post reporter who had been part of the Snowden revelations, right?
O’BRIEN: You know, Purdue has a NSA Center of Academic Excellence there. This is a center established in order to cultivate future workers in the cyber security information insurance realm. And here you have a Washington Post reporter who covered the Snowden leaks closely and was one of Snowden’s confidants, who is invited to present his talk on these issues and has three classified slides that have been widely distributed amongst the public realm, and because of these national security relationships that Purdue has, they have to delete the video of the event, they have to ( according to his account) even delete the projector that he used to show these slides, because of its relationship with the national security state and the production of classified information.
But, you know, I want to tell you one other thing that I thought was equally disturbing to me or equally questionable to me. The FBI active shooter situations have increased in the last ten years. They’re exponentially increasing. And I read an essay by an FBI agent who essentially described the establishment of threat assessment teams on campus as a means to mitigate the possible risk from an active shooter or a unbalanced student. And one of the paragraphs in this essay actually suggested that if a professor saw a picture, a drawing, or an essay that disturbed them by a student, about violence or the like, that they actually bring it privately to this threat assessment team, which is filled with psychologists and law enforcement personnel, to evaluate whether or not this person is a threat to the campus. I found that paragraph to be highly questionable in light of what we think about the university in terms of freedom of expression and the like.
The issue of curricula, though, is also seen in, like, how anthropology in the ’60s and ’70s was used for national security ends, like studies on Russian emigres and the like. So there has always been this relationship between the intelligence community.
The question here is–and it’s not as if–let me just say this, too–it’s not as if the humanities have never been used for foreign policy or national security purposes. I mean, during the Cold War, you had cultural exchanges and the like that have been publicly documented and well known. I think here the question is is when you have information technology itself penetrating every aspect of civil society–so we’re not just talking about kinetic weapons or segments of society that are segregated from everything else; we’re really talking about the notions of freedom of thought, privacy–when you see that kind of network being established within every institution of society, including the university, when you see the university becoming so much a part of the global corporate markets and its relationship to the funding and incentives that the national security state provides for it spread through so deeply, it starts to begin to raise, I think, very deep and important questions about where we’re at and where we’re heading.
HEDGES: Well, we’ve seen accompanying this a withering away of the liberal arts and humanities, especially in many state schools, where whole departments–philosophy departments, language departments, University of Albany and others–have just been abolished and the university shifting increasingly, even the elite universities like Stanford and Harvard, to essentially vocational centers of some form.
And that’s very dangerous, because the death of the liberal arts, the death of the humanities is stripping people of the ability to step into other cultures, to challenge assumptions, to question structures. And like business schools, we have now seen–and I think your study, the study you and Bill did, has provided evidence of this–we are seeing schools become almost exclusively, or certainly predominantly, institutions that create systems managers, whether that’s directly for corporate power or for the arm of control that corporate power uses, which is the national security state, and all of those disciplines that don’t serve those vocational needs being shunted aside, or in some cases eradicated. And certainly with these online schools, they’re not offering liberal arts.
O’BRIEN: It’s not just the online schools. I mean, what you first said and ended with is really actually something that also surprised us. We saw no nationally ranked liberal arts colleges–the Kenyons or the Amhersts–on our list in the top-secret world, or their academic programs. Secondly, okay, we saw three Ivy League schools. So we were like, well, why are these here? And we discovered that in the intelligence community very few people have bachelors from Harvard, where they went to get a sort of traditional humanities, liberal arts education. These are middle-level managers of the national security state who are going to the Kennedy School of Government, for example, to get credentialing for career advancement. And Cornell and Penn State have specialized graduate school programs. Northwestern–why is it on our list? Well, they happen to educate special agents and mid-level and high-level executives in the FBI for the same thing. So it’s really about even the elite schools becoming essentially requisite certification for career advancement.
I think that’s probably–this is my hypothesis–that’s probably more a phenomenon of a networked, transient population where you have very many weak social ties. And the national security state isn’t larger than it was during World War II, but it’s different in that it’s networked and it’s built together with sort of black box architecture. And so you need that credentialing because of the market and the nature and the culture and ethos of this community.
HEDGES: When you walk away after months of looking at this, what does it say about us as a society? What are the kind of broad ramifications of all that?
O’BRIEN: Well, I think it’s dangerous. And the fact that there are so few people covering this, that’s also a concern for me. And it’s one of the great privileges to work with someone like Bill Arkin, who has been doing this for 40 years. I think, personally, in my own sort of vocation and evocation, that if we do not produce a cadre of civilian experts that can offer a counternarrative to this, I think we’re doomed even more.
HEDGES: But in many ways these people don’t even–there is no narrative. All they do is serve the system itself in terms of data collection, electronic surveillance, drone operations, TSA operations. I wonder if they even have a narrative. I don’t think they’re even educated to particularly have a narrative.
O’BRIEN: I think you’re right. Part of the reason why we don’t have the service colleges on this list, even though they fell within the top-secret rankings, is because they are set up, they’re owned by the government. They are supposed to be teaching the military arts. And when you teach people the military arts, you tend to also teach them about the ethics of warfare. So there is this sort of full sort of comprehensive approach to the skills that they’re learning, although those are shifting towards information as well.
Here what we have found this investigation raises is that you have a large community of America’s higher education catalyzing warfare, reaping the benefits of warfare, and they aren’t really interrogating their own ethical aspects of these phenomena.
Intelligence in and of itself is not a bad thing for knowledge before taking action, seeing the results of one’s actions in hindsight. These are important skills. Whether or not this is what these schools are teaching is questionable.
But once again, if you go to the NSA, for example, and say to an engineer, I want to you to build a bomb that blows up cats, they’ll go and build that bomb. Whether or not it’s a good or bad idea is a second thing.
And I think that it’s affecting our debate about the kinds of leaks that you’ve seen in the last five years. I mean, we can talk about classified material and we can talk about revealing secrets. If we don’t understand the material, if we can’t diagnose the nature of the landscape, then how are we ever going to find whether or not we value it or consider it to be something that we should do away with? We can’t. We’re just talking about capacity.
So these schools are incentivized and they reap the benefits of warfare and the current intelligence-collection regime, but they aren’t really thinking at all.
HEDGES: Well, and they’re creating a class of people who are never even capable of asking the questions. And that’s what all totalitarian societies seek to create are people who blindly serve a system and are never, in some sense, at least on a deep level, ever educated.
O’BRIEN: You said something before that really struck home for me. It’s something that I have come to understand over the last 20 years of my life. I think it’s always easy to say those people do covert activity and therefore they’re evil, or those people are part of the national security state. And I think for me when I see the kinds of work that I do and that I’m interested in is really seeing clearly what is the national security state. It’s you and I. It’s these institutions. We are so much a part of it, we can’t separate ourselves from it. And I think that in order to really come to terms with it, we have to approach it that way. When I hear people talk about, like, oh, I don’t respect soldiers or I would never join the military, I say, well, you’re lucky you don’t have to join the military, because a lot of people join the military in order to get these benefits.
O’BRIEN: And are these people who join the military in order to attain social mobility and to gain capital and capacity in their lives, are they being treated in the way that they deserve to be treated? Are they getting the education that they deserve from their G.I. benefits? Or are they being exploited by companies who are selling them essentially something completely valueless?
So these are important questions. And we really struggled to make sure that we stayed completely empirical in this and that we didn’t go too far beyond or make just provocative statements just to make them–not that provocative statements aren’t warranted or not that this isn’t concerning or that what we discovered disturbed us to some degree, in some respects, but really it’s about diagnosing the landscape so that we can begin to articulate the value and the ethical components of it.
HEDGES: And you’ve done a great job.
O’BRIEN: Thank you.
HEDGES: Thank you, Alexa.
And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.
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