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Controversy Erupts Over Professors’ Ties to the CIA

By Michelle M. Hu and Radhika Jain, Crimson Staff Writers

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.

Hirschorn says that The Crimson received previous versions of Safran’s book, which contained sections that had been redacted and never released to the public.

In addition, he says that Safran had been a major figure in the Middle East and had personal relationships with many public figures in the region.

“He had access to the top levels of all those governments, and was essentially in the secret pay of the CIA at the time,” Hirschorn says. “If you’re an Egyptian foreign minister attending this [conference], you would presumably be attending under the assumption that this was an academic gathering and a safe place to discuss things, as opposed to an extension of the CIA.”

Upon learning of the conference’s funding source, half of the participants refrained from attending. One even flew directly back to Cairo after landing in Boston and learning of Safran’s dealings.


Safran’s interactions with the CIA were significant in helping to develop the University’s policies towards proper conduct when accepting government funds.

But he was not the only professor whose dealings with the CIA would become controversial.

In 1986, two Harvard-affiliated professors, Samuel P. Huntington and Richard K. Betts ’69, were criticized after it was discovered that an article they had published in the Harvard journal “International Security” was based on research funded by the CIA—but did not mention the CIA as a funding source.

The report on instability following the death of third-world dictators was entirely unclassified, according to Betts, who was an independent consultant to the intelligence community at the time.

Nevertheless, the CIA requested that its name be kept off the publication so that the views expressed in the research would not be connected to the American government—a national security concern that Betts says he considers entirely justified.

“More frank work can be done if the government is not associated with the analysis,” Betts explains.

Controversy arose when the CIA connection was discovered, and the academic community found fault with Betts and Huntington for concealing the source of funding.

Betts says that he was very clear with the managing editor of “International Security”—who, according to Betts, “forgot” the conversation about the origins of the research.

“In retrospect, it should have all been done in writing,” Betts says.

The former Harvard visiting professor attributes much of the unease about the situation to the “axiomatic suspicion in the academic community” towards the government, following the radicalism of the 1960s and the Vietnam War.

Betts says that the alternative to concealing research sponsors is to not publish the research at all—a prospect he considers unacceptable.

“A natural value of the academic profession is that the knowledge it generates should be as widely available as possible,” he says.

Betts also denies that the CIA had any influence on his research, and further says that he believes it is rare that the CIA will try to frame the research it has requested.

Preston B. Golson ’02, media spokesperson for the CIA Office of Public Affairs, adds that while the CIA is sometimes obligated to keep research classified, “it’s not the policy or practice of the Agency to censor academic work. ... It would be wrong, however, for anyone to equate classifying sensitive information with censorship.”


The government funds the “overwhelming majority” of scientific research on campus, according to B.D. Colen, Harvard’s senior communications officer for University science. But, he adds, money from the CIA comprises a negligible part of that sum.

In fact, Colen says there is currently no CIA-sponsored research at Harvard, and the small number of CIA-funded projects over the past ten years have all been unclassified.

“We do not do classified work at Harvard,” Colen says, adding that donors may not censor research they have funded but are allowed to review work 30 days in advance of publication.

When organizations do reach out to professors to conduct research for them, the contracts must meet a strict set of guidelines provided by the Harvard Office for Sponsored Programs, which facilitates outside funding of University research.

According to “Principles and Polices that Govern Your Research, Instruction, and Other Professional Activities,” a rule book published by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, “The source of sponsorship and the purpose of the research must be of such a nature that they can be publicly disclosed.”

Exceptions to this rule are allowed, but must be approved by the Dean of the Faculty, the Committee on Research Policy, or the Committee on Professional Conduct.


Administrators at the University say they understand that while it is sometimes necessary, accepting money from outside sources requires discretion.

Tad J. Oelstrom, director of the National Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, says that the integrity of research done with any source of outside funding—whether from the government or not—is at risk.

“Government grants are good because they’re very well spelled out and provide a reliable source of money for the duration of the project. But they come with many legal and regulatory restrictions,” adds Kevin Ryan, executive director for research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Kennedy School Professor Matthew Bunn—who has worked in the past as an adviser to the federal intelligence community—notes that grants come with a stipulation of prior review more often than most people assume.

But Bunn says that when reviewing funding offers, he is more concerned about whether or not donors have ulterior motives for the research that is being conducted.

He adds that he believes that there can be a fruitful partnership between academia and intelligence agencies.

“I think it is very worthwhile for the country if the intelligence community is well-informed,” he says. “That’s why we spend tens of billions of dollars a year on having an intelligence community.”

Unlike the Center for Middle Eastern Studies of 25 years ago, the Center currently has no projects funded by the CIA, and has not had any for at least the last five years, according to CMES Administrator Alison G. Howe.

According to Baber Johansen, the current director of CMES, the implications of working with any funding source are particularly relevant to the institution today, as the organization’s mission of sending students to the Middle East relies on strong relationships with international contacts.

Johansen says he believes that accepting grants from the CIA would likely damage the connections CMES has established in the Middle East—connections that are more important to the mission of the center than the CIA’s money.

“I would tend to think that an academic institution should not be funded by a secret service,” he says. “Weight that against our core mission—and that is contact with the Middle East—[and] I would see a conflict.”

—Staff writer Michelle M. Hu can be reached at

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at

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