Controversy Erupts Over Professors’ Ties to the CIA

In 1985, a Harvard informant came forward to The Crimson and hand-delivered a package of documents that had never before been made available to the public.

The package contained extensive information about the Central Intelligence Agency’s dealings with Nadav Safran, then-director of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

The informant was disturbed by Safran’s financial ties to the CIA, which included a transfer of more than $150,000 to fund the publishing of Safran’s book as well as funds for Safran to organize a conference involving distinguished Middle Eastern scholars and diplomats from around the world.

The controversy came nine years after Harvard—in response to a Congressional investigation into CIA funding of research—had reformed its policies by requiring professors to disclose CIA grants to the University.

As a result, Safran found himself answering to Harvard, the media, and the participants of his conference, many of whom decided not to attend after finding out that it was funded in part by an American intelligence agency.

Twenty-five years later, the ethical questions raised by the Safran controversy continue to define and shape the way Harvard approaches research sponsorship.


Michael W. Hirschorn ’86, the Crimson reporter who took the lead in breaking this story, says it was essentially the “Wikileaks” of its time and that, as the scandal erupted, there were calls for the arrest of the Crimson editors.

“It was hugely controversial at the time, to the point that the novelist Mark Helprin, a regular columnist for the Wall Street Journal, wrote a huge full-page [editorial] saying we should go to jail and that we had violated university policy, that we were criminals,” Hirschorn says.

Nevertheless, Hirschorn, who is now a television producer, says he did not hesitate to cover the story because he was concerned about the lack of University transparency at the time.

It was later revealed that Safran had informed former Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky, as well as the book’s publisher, Harvard University Press, of his funding sources.

However, Rosovsky failed to review the terms of the contract and did not adequately respond to Safran’s disclosure.

In the aftermath of the scandal, Safran kept his tenured position at Harvard, but stepped down as director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Hirschorn says the central problem lay in the fact that Safran’s research was likely compromised, as well as the fact that the CIA had access to Safran’s connections.

According to Hirschorn, the CIA’s contract with Safran stipulated that its involvement would not be disclosed, in addition to having the right to prior review and censorship.