Agents in Academia

Dear Reader,

Thanks to international education partnerships between higher education institutes across the globe, many students travel to other countries to study abroad while attending college. Not only do Americans travel to other countries, but students from all over the world come to American universities and colleges.

None of this should surprise you. But what if I told you that classrooms and auditoriums in the hallowed halls of higher education are a MAJOR target for espionage activities? Because that’s exactly what was carried out by a tenured business professor at the University of South Florida.

University of South Florida — main campus.

University of South Florida — main campus.

Dajin Peng, a Chinese-born U.S. citizen, was employed as a professor at the University of South Florida when the FBI recruited him to gain intelligence on their behalf. Peng allegedly agreed to provide information to the FBI about the Chinese government — and more specifically, the Chinese community in South Florida.

In return for his services, the FBI supposedly protected Peng when the university accused him of racking up thousands of dollars in fraudulent expenses, writing false information in letters in order to help Chinese scholars obtain visas and storing sexually explicit images on a university laptop.

A Working Education

You’re probably wondering why the FBI recruited Peng in the first place.

Peng was the head of the USF’s Confucius Institute, an educational organization tied to the Chinese government that promotes Chinese language and culture internationally to facilitate cultural exchanges. As the leader of this organization, Peng had access to information on Chinese government officials and the Chinese community in Florida.

Now in this case, Peng was working with the FBI to help the U.S. However, countries like China and Russia work against the United States by sending agents posing as students to gain information about U.S. policy and government research at American universities.

One of the most popular cities for these so-called students to target is Boston because of such prominent universities as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard.

Back to School

Of course, U.S. intelligence officials know these universities are prime targets, and they recognize the opportunity to gather their own intelligence information on students coming from other countries.

Numerous CIA officers attend Harvard to study public policy and other subjects related to business and politics. While these officers are there, they also work to recruit potential assets for the future. One former CIA officer I know who attended Harvard once told me, “The associations I made there came in handy later.”

When it comes to espionage, seminars and conferences at major universities are one of the best ways to meet (and eventually recruit) someone as an asset to provide you with information. We know that other countries send intelligence officers to America for this purpose just as the U.S. does with universities abroad. Most academic institutions welcome people from different backgrounds and cultures, which helps spies blend in and gather information from their peers as well as professors.

A Valuable Lesson

As you can imagine, most academic institutions would rather intelligence officers stay away from their schools and carry out their espionage activities elsewhere. For instance, in the 1970s Harvard enacted a policy prohibiting students or faculty from working for the CIA or recruiting others to work on behalf of the intelligence agency.

The truth is having spies on campus isn’t something most university presidents want under their watch. So to address the concerns between universities and U.S. government, in 2005 officials at the FBI created the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board.

This group is made up of 20 university presidents from institutions all over the U.S. to improve relationships between higher education and the U.S. intelligence services. In other words, the FBI knows how valuable schools are for recruiting and information gathering and they want to work with them to conduct their operations.

Clearly, I am in favor of the FBI recruiting foreign students at our colleges to help our country. But the big danger is all the Russians, Chinese, etc., who infiltrate our universities to spy against the U.S., which is why I would be careful about trusting foreign students.

Of course, 99.9% of foreigners are good, hardworking scholars, but it doesn’t hurt to be very careful about what kinds of information you share with them.

Stay safe,

Jason Hanson

Jason Hanson

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