Homeland security studies are seeing red-hot growth as America's new Cold War hits campus. Stephen Phillips meets the field's ex-military linchpins
Role-playing isn't commonplace in postgraduate classes, but Frank Ciffullo's students at Washington DC's George Washington University aren't your everyday postgraduates. The 18 students, many of them taking time out from US government and intelligence agencies, are studying for masters degrees in international affairs with an emphasis on homeland security.
Last year, students on the course simulated terrorists bent on tampering with the water supply. This year's top-secret exercise was designed to help them climb inside the heads of "adversaries" in America's war on terror. Ciffullo is unequivocal about the programme's mission. "It's this generation and the next generation's war. There's a responsibility for institutions of higher learning to educate [them]."
This month, his students are braced for a grilling by the former chief of staff of the US Department of Homeland Security. They can thank Ciffullo's connections for such an illustrious inquisitor. Before joining George Washington in 2003 as founding director of its Homeland Security Management Institute, he was President George W. Bush's special adviser on homeland security.
With its proximity to the seat of US government, George Washington is an obvious candidate to run such a course. But its preoccupations aren't confined to the nexus of power within Washington. Homeland security academic programmes, grappling with ways to defend the US from terrorist assault, are flourishing on campuses nationwide, and Ciffullo, who touts his "operational scar tissue", is one of a growing cadre of ex-government and military officials who have found a new home in academia.
The National Academic Consortium for Homeland Security, formed in 2003, counts 315 member institutions, all offering related courses, says executive director Todd Stewart, a former US Air Force major general. "It's one of the fastest-growing areas of curricular development," says Stewart, who also directs the Program for International and Homeland Security at Ohio State University.
Some institutions are creating new courses from scratch. This year, Virginia Commonwealth University launched the first bachelors degree in homeland security and emergency planning. In 2004, San Diego State University enrolled the first students on its inaugural homeland security masters programme. Others have adapted established specialisms, such as Georgetown University, which updated its 25-year-old security studies programme for a post-9/11 world.
As well as discrete homeland security courses, campuses have introduced homeland-security twists on traditional subjects. Emergency response courses in public health curricula and social science courses on the origins of militant extremism are good examples, but even ostensibly unlikely subjects haven't escaped untouched.
At Virginia Commonwealth, fashion students recently examined how to "put chemical detection devices on military garments", says William Parish, a former US Marine who directs its homeland security programme. Beyond the groundswell of programmes at individual campuses, the Department of Homeland Security has endowed research Centers of Excellence at five consortia of campuses, with "several more" planned, says Mel Bernstein, university programmes director.
The emergence of homeland security specialisms has invited comparison with the marshalling of academic resources behind US national security concerns during the Cold War.
Despite its growth, the field has yet to form a coherent discipline.
Efforts have been complicated because of the interdisciplinary sweep of programmes, experts say. But that might not be too long in coming.
Bernstein notes "journals being developed", while Stewart says a textbook series, which he edited, is due out in a year.
Meanwhile, interest among students is high. Some 500 flocked to an introductory-level seminar that Ohio State offered this year, making it one of the most popular courses among first-years on America's third-largest campus, Stewart says. Part of the appeal is likely to be that the subject taps into the Zeitgeist , but Ciffullo says students are also answering a "higher calling". Bernstein adds: "After 9/11, there was a great emotional outpouring and people were anxious to serve. Students understand there's a need to protect the country."
Then there's employability. The behemoth-like Department of Homeland Security, into which multiple government departments were consolidated, is one of the US's largest employers, with a workforce of 183,000. Job opportunities abound in other federal agencies and local government too, Stewart says. There's also growing demand for homeland security specialists in industry. Meanwhile, so-called "business continuity planning", aimed at minimising operational disruptions from terrorism or natural disasters, has become a burgeoning corporate field.
"There are skills needed and capabilities students are interested in being exposed to," Bernstein says. "Universities often think of new (programmes) and the marketplace decides which are most germane." But officials also envisage a more formal role for campuses in homeland security policy.
"When the Department of Homeland Security was established three years ago, written into law was the explicit desire to engage the academic [community's] research capability and ability to work across fields and promote professional development."
But government security projects and campuses can be uneasy bedfellows, especially given concerns about academic freedom and the Bush Administration's policies. A recent National Academies book on homeland security courses recognises this and cites the "cautionary" tale of the National Security Education Program (NSEP), instituted in 1991 to prepare area studies graduates for national security roles, as a warning against too closely identifying academic programmes with government agencies. The scholarship scheme faced boycotts amid a "perceived conflation of agency objectives and an educational programme", it notes, and a new scheme intended to augment the NSEP is raising similar concerns.
The Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (Prisp) offers $25,000 annual stipends to students in "critical language specialties, area studies and technical and scientific specialties" who commit to working in intelligence-gathering for at least 18 months after graduation.
Participants are not forbidden to talk to the press, but, two years in, no details have been released about their identities, says a spokesman for the Defense Intelligence Agency, which administers Prisp. This has drawn condemnation from critics.
Despite bearing the name of the Kansas Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Select Committee, the $4 million three-year programme is the brainchild of University of Kansas anthropology professor Felix Moos. "We don't only need soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, we need people who speak the languages and are familiar with the cultures," he says. The scheme is meant to cultivate experts in critical languages and cultures to plug deficiencies shown up by previous intelligence failings, he adds. His original idea envisaged full transparency, but he says he sees the need for participants to remain covert. "A student could be taking a class at UCLA (the University of California, Los Angeles) in Uzbek. You may have a Chinese Uzbek-speaking person taking down names. Three years later, when the student turns up in Uzbekistan, he or she could be killed."
But Hugh Gusterson, associate anthropology professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls the scheme "an invitation to abuse".
"It establishes a bridgehead of government security in universities," he says, violating the "bedrock principle" of informed consent governing fieldwork by which subjects agree to be studied based on frank disclosure of funding sources and uses to which information will be put, he says. Moos calls the qualms "naive... Let's go back to the Second World War. Imagine I'm studying the SS. Am I going to protect that group of people and tell them I'm not going to write about them?"
The events of 9/11 rewrote the rules, he says. "This is a new war, where we don't have combatants with uniforms. How many Taleban have serial numbers and uniforms?" Gusterson accuses Moos of "hyping" the stakes. David Price, associate anthropology professor at Washington State's St Martin's University, says the scheme gives US officials the intelligence they want to hear by "immersing students (who perform summer internships) in agencies' group-think and limiting cultures". Price is also troubled by the "upfront" work commitment required of students, who may not fully grasp what they are letting themselves in for.
At its annual conference two weeks ago, the American Association of Anthropologists formed a committee to "determine what our relationship to (intelligence) agencies (and the Pentagon) should be", says Brown University anthropology professor William Beeman, a member of the decision-making panel. Pending its deliberations, the association won't run a CIA recruitment advertisement placed in one of its publications, he says.
With homeland security specialists looking at things in the long term, such issues are unlikely to go away. "It took us 50 years to work our way out of the Cold War," says Stewart. "It could take us 50 years to work our way out of this era."