Of Scholars and Spies

/ 12 Dec 2018

Of Scholars and Spies

After years of working in the Middle East and North Africa, I was not that surprised by the case of Matthew Hedges, a British doctoral candidate who was arrested in the United Arab Emirates in May and accused of espionage. After almost six months in prison, a lightning-quick trial and conviction, and an international outcry, Hedges was pardoned on November 26 and allowed to travel home. (See a related article, “Spy Conviction May Chill U.A.E. Research.”)

I myself, as a journalist, have been accused of spying more than once. One time it happened while I was following a demonstration, walking down a street in Cairo with a microphone in hand. “Spy!” a by-stander hissed at me. His definition of “spying” could be done openly, alongside colleagues, at a public event, to be broadcast across the world. In effect, it boiled down to documenting something that he considered troubling, unflattering.

Hedges, a Ph.D. candidate at Durham University, in England, had done research on the Muslim Brotherhood; his current research focused on “the post-Arab Spring national security strategy of the U.A.E.,” according to his LinkedIn profile. These are not topics that can be discussed freely and critically by academics or indeed anyone in the Emirates today. Hedges has been clear that his interests were academic, and that he was not spying for anyone—a failure by the British government to support his statements appears to have delayed his release.

Across the region, paranoid police states have been deeply unsettled by the Arab Spring and they are on the offensive today to stamp out any signs of dissent. They have invested massively in surveillance, and they have been emboldened by the rise of authoritarianism and by the deterioration of human rights protections worldwide.

What has changed in recent years is that the thin protection that foreign scholars used to benefit from has cracked. We had already seen this with the shocking murder of the Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni in Egypt in 2016 (for which the Italian judiciary has just indicted five Egyptian security officials).

Of course, sometimes journalists and academics do spy. T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) started out as an archaeologist and was recruited by British military intelligence in 1914; he carried out a survey of the Negev desert for them, under the cover of archaeological research.

American scholars acted as spies during the two world wars and the Cold War; intelligence agencies reached out to them again with the onset of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s “war on terror.”

The fields of archaeology and anthropology have been particularly implicated, and they have been dogged by debates over the issue. Some scholars argue that it is their patriotic duty, and their prerogative, to assist national security interests. Others maintain that any overlap between intelligence-gathering and scholarly research destroys trust between academics and potential sources and taints scholarly work with hidden agendas.

This was the position of the anthropologist Franz Boas, who back in the 1920s denounced any scholar-spy as someone “who prostitutes science in an unpardonable way.”

Intelligence agencies and the military commission studies, sponsor research and organize conferences. It is when they do so surreptitiously (without academics’ knowledge, or when researchers interview people who are unaware of the source of the researchers’ funding or the strategic purpose of their work) that those agencies clearly cross the line into espionage, and put scholars, sources, and the integrity of academic research at risk.

Yet what of researchers who are ethical, transparent and professional and nonetheless face the accusation of being spies?

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the anthropologist Katherine Verdery did field work in Romania. When the archives of the former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s secret police were declassified, she discovered a hefty dossier on herself, comprising photographs, recordings, and reports by informants who included friends and lovers. It turned out the Romanian secret police were spying on her because they believed that she was a spy.

In her recent book My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File, Verdery grapples with the alternate narrative about her that the Romanian intelligence officers built over the years. This narrative morphed over time, finding new arguments for why she must be a spy. In 1984, after abandoning several previous theories, the intelligence officers wrote: “She is collecting information of a sociopolitical character, which she interprets in a falsified and hostile manner. Although it is not secret, [it] can be used against the interests of our country.”

In her book, published in May by Duke University Press, Verdery confronts a definition of spying that is so diffuse as to easily encompass her ethnographic work. She was not a U.S. government agent, but she did indeed “collect information of a sociopolitical character.” And some of her scholarly methods—discreetly cultivating contacts with useful information—struck Romania’s spies as similar to their own.

In a police state, where academic freedom is not respected, “spying” may be the easiest way for intelligence services to understand field work. Everything looks like spying to a state steeped in surveillance.

In a 2006 essay titled “No Easy Answers: The Ethics of Field Research in the Arab World,” the political scientist Sheila Carapico grappled with the question of how field work is perceived in the region. She wrote:

“The ubiquity of national security establishments in the Arab world creates suspicions and risks. Mere candor about one’s research rarely suffices. To neighbors, corner grocers, and others without college degrees the word for ‘research’ sounds like ‘investigation,’ and we may indeed look like we are snooping about. Speaking broken Arabic seems fishy; speaking good Arabic can make people more leery. Few will understand that they have been targeted via a random sampling technique. The more theoretical and academic the inquiry, the more it may seem like a devious cover story. In any case, real CIA agents have cover stories too.”

Carapico also discussed whether sharing one’s scholarship with one’s own (possibly imperialist) government could ever serve to educate policy makers, or would always only be a form of indirect intelligence-gathering. As Carapico wrote:

“There’s also an urge and an ethical imperative to inform policy makers. […] Does accepting pay, writing a report, giving a briefing, or attending a conference make one into the sort of intelligence agent suspected by some neighbors and Arab security establishments all along? Is this not the ultimate in imperial information extraction? Or, contrarily, can we counterbalance disinformation and imperial impulses? Or are we simply to be damned if we do, damned if we don’t?”

I think there will always be some espionage on the margins of academia; that is the price to pay for universities’ openness, for the creation of knowledge and the flow of information. And Western researchers in the Arab world and elsewhere will always have to grapple with the consequences of their work for their sources, and with the potential use of it by their own governments.

Scholars have a responsibility to be transparent about how their research will be used. But governments have a much greater one not to throw around the accusation of “espionage” when they come across a researcher who is asking questions they would rather not hear.

States that spy on scholars are a much greater concern than scholars who spy on states. In the Arab world today, most everything of import has become a “sensitive” topic. Turning everyone into a subversive, a spy, a cop or an informer is what police states do. Hedges was reported by one of his interviewees; Regeni was recorded by one of his sources, who was also an informant.

In most Arab countries, the authorities are busy creating an environment in which questions are dangerous, and everyone is a suspect.




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  1. John Waterbury says:

    I began my first foray into Middle East politics in the summer of 1960, in Egypt. I was still an undergraduate at the time, doing research for my senior thesis. Everything I did could easily have identified me as a spy. Subsequently I researched my PhD dissertation in Morocco, 1965-68 and then returned toi live in Egypt from 1971-77. I gathered political information, interviwed hundreds of people. I was questioned a couple of times by mubahith in Egypt and internal security in Morocco. But it was a question of polite grilling of a couple of hours. I knew from Moroccan and Egyptian friends what the real thing could be like. I never experienced the real thing.
    The Middle East has become infinitely more dangerous since those days. I am not sure if it is a question of greater regime paranoia or more sophisticated surveillance techniques, but I would not know now how to advise PhD students under my supervision on how to proceed–except with extreme caution.

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