Where Penn Intelligence and Central Intelligence Collide
By Jimmy Tobias | The Daily Pennsylvanian – December 3, 2009
The Pentagon permeates everyday life in America. Its influence, along with that of the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies, is almost everywhere. From movies like Iron Man and G.I. Joe to video games like Halo 2 and America’s Army, from Home Depot to Google, from MIT to Harvard, the list of Pentagon-sponsored corporations, institutions and products is miles long.
Of course, with two wars going strong and more than 800 military bases in 40 different countries and overseas territories, our global military presence is massive and requires maintenance. As a result, the U.S. accounts for nearly half of all military spending across the globe.
All in all, this presence has meant 60 years of near-constant warfare for America. Between the end of World War II and the end of the Kosovo conflict, the U.S. engaged in more than 200 non-covert military operations, according to a tally by the Federation of American Scientists.
But what does this have to do with you? Penn is part of the “military-industrial complex” (to borrow a term from President Eisenhower) that keeps America’s war machine running. In fact, academia in general is a key pillar in the apparatus that produces weapons, technology, information and innovation for America’s military bureaucracy and its private corporate partners.
According to a 2002 report by the Association of American Universities, nearly 350 colleges and universities do Pentagon-funded research. The Department of Defense (DoD) is, in fact, the third-largest provider of funding for university research, after the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation.
Penn is a microcosm of this reality. It has a long history with the DoD, as well as the CIA and the FBI, including a decade-long stint in the 1950s and ‘60s as one of the premier institutions for secret chemical and biological weapons research in the country. Penn does not engage in classified research today, but non-classified research continues apace. For example, in the 2009 fiscal year Penn received approximately $34.3 million in funding from the DoD, according to Penn’s Vice Provost for Research Dr. Steven Fluharty. This money represents only 4.8 percent of total government-sponsored research at the university, but since Pentagon money is often concentrated in very specific departments and laboratories, it has a large impact on a number of disciplines, especially engineering, computer science and math.
The Coming Robot Army: The Case of the GRASP Lab
Penn’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab is an interdisciplinary research center nestled neatly into the fourth floor of the Engineering School’s Levine Hall. Bringing together engineers, biologists, mathematicians and computer scientists, the GRASP Lab develops sophisticated robots and the operating systems on which they depend. As a result, it is an on-campus favorite of the Pentagon, which is currently working to replace a large swath of U.S. military personnel with robots and drones.
Almost all of what is being undertaken at the GRASP Lab involves graduate students. The end product is often a series of algorithms, a computer system or a conceptual framework — no one at Penn is developing actual bombs or missiles. And because such research is basic, it also has potential applications outside the realm of war, in search and rescue missions, for instance. Yet as far as the DoD is concerned, the work the GRASP Lab does is the first link in a chain of research and development on which the Department depends as it develops technology for use on the battlefield.
Many have read about the drones the U.S. military is using to conduct bombing raids and surveillance operations in the Middle East. According to Defense Industry Daily, Penn professors, through the SWARMS project, are trying to get those drones to “autonomously converge on enemy troops, aircraft and ships, decide what to do, then engage the enemy with surveillance or weapons to help U.S. forces defeat them. All this without direct human intervention.”
SWARMS, which stands for Scalable Swarms of Autonomous Robots and Mobile Sensors and is headed by Penn professor Vijay Kumar, was funded by a $5 million grant from the Army Research Office. The project is near completion, but similar technology is being developed and applied further under another project, Micro Autonomous System Technologies (MAST) Alliance. This was funded by a $22 million grant for 10 years from the Army Research Lab — the single largest grant in the Engineering School’s history. Like SWARMS, the project is working to enhance “warfighting capabilities” and “situational awareness” in “complex terrain, such as caves and mountains, or an urban environment,” according to the Army.
The SWARMS project and MAST Alliance are being developed for use in the drones that have a central role in the military’s strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan and are highly publicized in U.S. media. These technologies, nevertheless, are controversial. The New York Times estimates that such attacks have killed approximately 700 Pakistani civilians between 2006 and 2009, while the New America Foundation reports that between 250 and 320 Pakistani civilians have been killed in drone bombings over the same period.
For another project, the Nano Air Vehicle, professor Mark Yim says he received a 10-month $1.7 million contract from Lockheed Martin, the largest arms manufacturer in the world and a subcontractor of the DoD. His task was to help develop a 1.5-inch flying robot that looks like a maple tree seed and includes a “chemical rocket enclosed in its one-bladed wing,” a tiny robot that can fly in the air, conduct surveillance operations and readily deliver two-gram “payloads,” a euphemism for bombs, rockets, surveillance devices or whatever else can fit in its minuscule frame.
When researchers were asked about the ethical implications of their work — the preceding examples are only a brief sampling of Penn’s military research — almost all of them took refuge in “hope.” Kumar, for instance, said he “would hope that [the SWARMS technology] would be used to save human lives.” The military, however, has a clearer view of what it wants out of Kumar’s project and others like it. Discussing its overall research agenda in its 2008 annual report, the ARO stated: “The vision of the Director, Army Research Office is to develop the science and technology that will maintain the Army’s overwhelming capability in the expanding range of present and future operations.” In other words, SWARMS and projects like it are meant for war.
Intelligence Agencies, Mandarin Teachers and Covert Classrooms
Research is not the only area of university life in which the military and intelligence establishment are interested. What happens in the classroom has also become a priority for certain agencies. The most notable example of this phenomenon is the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (PRISP). With the advent of PRISP, the federal government now operates its own secret scholarship program for future spies and intelligence analysts.
The brainchild of anthropologist Felix Moos and Senator Pat Roberts, “PRISP links undergraduate and graduate students with U.S. security and intelligence agencies like the NSA or CIA, and unannounced to universities, professors or fellow-students, PRISP students enter American campuses, classrooms, laboratories and professors’ offices without disclosing links to these agencies,” according to anthropologist and reporter David Price.
Participants in PRISP receive up to $50,000 in tuition and stipends over a two-year period for university programs that have been approved by one of the U.S. intelligence agencies. In return for this funding, each participant must work as an analyst for the approving agency for at least one and a half years. There is no way to tell if PRISP students are active on Penn’s campus, and that’s the point. Nobody knows who is or is not a soon-to-be secret agent or analyst for the government.
There are other cases in which intelligence agencies are operating openly on Penn’s campus. The most explicit example is that of International Relations 290, Introduction to Theory and Practice of Counterintelligence. Frank Plantan, Bruce Newsome and Anne-Louise Antonoff will teach this undergraduate course for the first time this spring. The course is not particularly unique, except for the fact that the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (ONCIX) developed it.
International Relations 290 came about when a representative from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) approached the International Relations department at a national security symposium held at Penn in the spring of 2009. Plantan, a co-director of the undergraduate International Relations program, says that both the curriculum and the syllabus for the course came from the DNI (of which OCNIX is a part), which will also send speakers to Penn to discuss the various subjects the class will cover. Penn professors merely teach the material that is provided.
Another example of visible operation of intelligence agencies at Penn is the Startalk Penn High School Chinese Academy. In 2006 the National Security Agency (NSA), in partnership with the University of Maryland, began sponsoring a series of language programs in an initiative called Startalk that teach “critical languages” — those deemed important by the national security establishment — to youth across the country. At Penn, Startalk kicked off in the summer of 2007, when 30 high school students and four local teachers received government subsidies to learn the intricacies of the Chinese language from Penn faculty. The program has continued every summer since.
Mien-hwa Chiang, one of the faculty members involved, recognizes that this program is the U.S. government’s attempt to develop the capacity to exert “soft power ” in the realms of language, culture and communication. She acknowledges, however, that while the students are familiar with the Startalk name they do not know that the program is an NSA initiative. In fact, in scanning Startalk promotional material it is nearly impossible to find any mention of the NSA.
Penn sophomore Chloe Summers participated in the Startalk program two years in a row before enrolling at Penn. She said that while she assumed the program had something to do with the government, she was never told that she was involved in a national security initiative. “Basically what I thought is they are trying to get students to learn Chinese so [the government] can hire them in the future. But it wasn’t explicitly said, they didn’t say it was sponsored by the NSA. It was very ambiguous,” she says. As with INTR 290, an intelligence agency is taking an active role in the classroom with Startalk. But in this case, children under the age of 18 are being incorporated into a national security strategy without full disclosure.
Footnotes from History
None of this is new to Penn. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, according to documents obtained at the University Archives, Penn’s now-defunct Institute for Cooperative Research researched biological and chemical weapons and developed delivery systems for them, funded by massive secret grants from the Pentagon. Back then, students could take Political Science 551, Strategic Intelligence and National Policy, a “thinly disguised training course for future intelligence agents” taught by a pair of former spies, according to a 1966 report in Ramparts magazine title “A War Catalog of the University of Pennsylvania.”
A string of revelations in the 1970s, many of which appeared in reports in the Daily Pennsylvanian, revealed the extent of Penn’s covert involvement with the national security establishment: In 1977, for instance, declassified CIA documents revealed that Penn had participated in the CIA’s secret MKULTRA mind-control experiments, which used narcotics, electric shocks, poisons and chemicals on volunteers, unwitting human subjects and prisoners. Declassified documents from the FBI’s domestic spying program, COINTEPLRO, revealed that at least one member of the University administration in the late 1960s was an FBI informant and that the FBI had attempted to influence coverage in the DP during the same period. It also came to light that the CIA had spied on student protestors in 1969 and that the University’s own campus security force had a history of spying on left-wing student dissident groups. The last revelation led to the resignation of two members of the University administration.
This is all to say that Penn has long been a stomping ground of the military and the U.S. intelligence establishment. There is one major difference, however, between the past and the present. Back then, when students learned about these issues, they took action. For instance, after the secret germ warfare research was revealed a series of large student protests shook the campus, including a six-day occupation of College Hall by 1,000 students and community members. Student action was supported by the faculty senate, which threatened to chastise Penn President Gaylord Harnwell if he did not cancel the secret germ warfare contracts. These actions worked: The contracts were canceled. Penn no longer engages in secret research.
These were the days when young people had their say. It was the age of the student power movement, which took seriously President Eisenhower’s warning, when he said: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”