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Doctors of Doom: What a PhD Really Means in the US National Security Community

Since 9/11, the number of doctorates awarded to those in the US Intelligence Community has risen steadily — but many of those degrees are from online institutions and have nothing to do with science, engineering, or the social sciences.
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Kamal Abdullah was born in Sudan and raised in the Gulf States before immigrating to the United States in 1982. Ten years later, he became an American citizen.

He got an associate's degree in pre-engineering, and then finished his bachelor's in business administration at Kensington University. Abdullah freely admits that the distance-learning school — it offered dubious degrees by mail in the days before the internet as we know it existed and was eventually shut down by the government — took his money in exchange for what he wanted: a piece of paper that said he was a college graduate.


Abdullah (he asked that his real name not be used) subsequently worked as a factory laborer building 18-wheeler trailer units, then as a machine operator, and then as a manager at a variety of fast food restaurants in the Midwest. Even after 9/11 and as things turned seriously grim for the US in Iraq, Abdullah says he didn't feel strongly about American national security.

But then in 2007, a recruiter came calling. He told Abdullah that as a native Arab speaker, his country needed him. And so Abdullah became a contract linguist employed by a multinational corporation and contracted to support US military forces. He was polygraphed by counterintelligence authorities and his family background was investigated and vetted. Then he was granted a Top Secret clearance with access to sensitive compartmented information. For four years, 12 hours a day, six days a week, he listened in on Iraqi telecommunications on behalf of the 3rd Infantry Division in al Anbar province.

Related: The Most Militarized Universities in America: A VICE News Investigation

He's been working as a linguist and translator as a government contractor ever since, and he is now a Category III linguist, the highest level a contractor can obtain. He is also a doctor.

While in Iraq, Abdullah earned a doctorate in Arabic Studies from Rochville University "of Humble, Texas," he says. On its website, Rochville aligns itself with "working individuals" and says its students can educate themselves without visiting a campus or disturbing their work schedules. It is one of hundreds of distance learning schools in the country. Rochville says it is "fully accredited" — but the Department of Education recognizes none of its credentials, and the Better Business Bureau gives Rochville an F for its business practices.


Abdullah expresses mild surprise at the news that he effectively has a bogus doctorate.

But he is hardly alone in the US Intelligence Community.

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A VICE News survey of about 1,500 people who have doctorates and work in the national security community — in theory, the elite of US intelligence — reveals an overwhelming bias toward online universities, particularly for those people whose doctorates were issued in the past 15 years.

It is difficult to determine how many people work in the US Intelligence Community (IC), let alone how many have doctorates. But VICE News accessed information about the educational backgrounds of more than 90,000 people who work in the national security domain and possess a Top Secret clearance. About 1,500 individuals were found to have doctoral degrees of all types (including lawyers with a Juris Doctor), a sample that represents just under 2 percent of the total. This tracks with the number of doctorates in civil society relative to the general population, according to the Department of Education. Currently, according to the US government, there are about 1.5 million soldiers, civilians, and private contractors with Top Secret clearances; overall that would suggest that 25,000 have doctorates, of which our sample represents about 6 percent.

The number of doctorates awarded to the IC has increased steadily since 9/11. Between 1981 and 2014, the number of PhDs among Top Secret workers has grown many hundreds percent, while the total number of doctoral degrees grew just 42 percent in civil society during the same time frame. However, hardly any intelligence professionals enter the IC with a PhD, a fact confirmed by internal studies done by the government.


Online for-profit schools currently dominate the awarding of doctorate degrees to intelligence professionals, with four private for-profit online schools — Capella University, Walden University, the University of Phoenix, and Northcentral University — awarding the most degrees, almost 15 percent of the total. The top schools producing doctorates before 9/11 were the University of Texas at Austin, George Washington University, and Georgetown University. According to the Department of Education, this shift reflects a broader emergence of distance learning in the US, even at the doctoral level.

Though there has been a nationwide proliferation of schools offering doctorates in national security studies curricula, universities in and around the Washington beltway — schools that intelligence managers call the "James, Johns, and Georges," plus the University of Maryland — dominate in the awarding of doctorates when it comes to brick-and-mortar schools.

Some other observations based on the data:

  • One out of every 50 PhDs in the intelligence community were obtained, like Abdullah's, from unaccredited schools.
  • While some elite schools — Georgetown, MIT, Yale, Columbia — rank among the top 50 PhD schools in the IC, their decline in influence in the past decade is noticeable, even when one examines the highest level entity of the intelligence community, the National Intelligence Council.
  • Since 9/11, there has been a pronounced shift in doctoral degrees in the IC away from the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, and engineering, and toward professional studies like business administration, information technology management, and various homeland security practices. Before 9/11, the study of science and engineering made up about 38 percent of all the doctorates awarded to Top Secret workers. Today, science and engineering degrees comprise less than 20 percent. Professional studies, meanwhile, has grown to more than 57 percent of the total degrees awarded.


Nowhere is the absence of professional standards and a decline in advanced education among Top Secret workers made clearer than in the hard sciences. While the number of new doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering in the US has slowly increased since 1957, it appears to be declining within the intelligence community. Degrees in the humanities and social sciences, which have slowly been declining in civil society overall, have seen a decline of about 43 percent in the IC since 2012. Meanwhile, doctoral degrees in professional studies have seen explosive growth, increasing among Top Secret workers by 346 percent since 2001.

Before 9/11, law degrees accounted for the highest number of doctoral degrees awarded to Top Secret workers; law was followed by electrical engineering, physics, computer science, aerospace engineering, political science, and international relations. After 9/11, business administration and management overtook law, dominating the overall total of doctorate degrees, while electrical engineering, computer science, and information security have taken over the "hard" sciences. Even within the information technologies domain, degrees in management surpass science or engineering by a factor of two.

For the national security community, this shift reflects the prevalence of private contracting companies and the subsequent demand for managerial talent with business and profit-making skills — skills not previously all that important in the IC.


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It is difficult, if not impossible, to characterize how smart any group is, let alone a secret group. What's more, the value of a formal education in the IC is considered relative by many experts both inside and outside the community, especially when it comes to intangible skills like leadership, military strategy, or street smarts. So while advanced degrees aren't the only measure of intelligence and capacity, inside the IC, there is a consistent call for more critical thinking skills and the kind of education that fosters them.

Since September 11, improving analytical competencies has been a priority of the US government. It created a National Intelligence University emulating the military's war colleges, and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has attempted to outline core competencies for the workforce. According to DNI directives released to the Federation of American Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act, formal education requirements are not a prerequisite for hiring or career advancement. Non-supervisory government intelligence employees are expected to exhibit "critical thinking" and question "conventional approaches" while putting their specialized subject matter expertise into practice.Supervisory employees are expected to foster work environments "where employees feel free to engage in open, candid exchanges of information and diverse points of view," while senior officers are expected to "encourage innovation and critical thinking" and demonstrate "adaptability and flexibility in leading organizational change."


Given the Niagara of data that has beset the community in the information era, mastery of software and analytic techniques to handle big data has become an overwhelming challenge. Thus most of what is currently called education, some argue, is little more than training, and as a result, the critical thinking the DNI leadership calls for falls by the wayside.

Stephen Marrin, an assistant professor of intelligence studies at Mercyhurst University, argues that formal education should rely more on "conceptual and theoretical frameworks having less immediate effect on performance." Writing in March of last year in the magazine of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, Jan Herring, a former national intelligence officer for science and technology, even argued for more classic management training of no immediate relevance. Up until this point, "management training for intelligence professionals is an area that has largely been overlooked," Herring said. "Promotion to management in government primarily has been governed by the 'Peter Principle' — promoted to your level of incompetence."

As more and more people inside this community shift to management-related degrees and away from the humanities and social sciences — and even those specializing in the sciences and engineering favor skills concerning IT and data crunching — it is clear that broad-based intellectual talent either curious (or knowledgeable) about the world is becoming more and more rare.


Writing in the Journal of Strategic Studies last year, Dr. James B. Bruce, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation, and Dr. Roger Zane George, a retired CIA analyst and professor of national security practice, conclude that even after post-9/11 "reforms" and 15 years of war, the education of intelligence analysts shows no particular cumulative effect or professional rigor.

"Since most analysts come to their jobs with some subject matter expertise, managers often presume they will learn whatever else they need 'on the job' just as they did [to get there]," Bruce and George write. Though there is a close relationship between the IC and certain universities in the field of contracted research and development, the two conclude that "agencies' perennial insularity from academe fosters poor understanding about educational opportunities to improve such professional skills as critical thinking and even subject matter expertise."

According to experts who have written on the crisis in intelligence education and training, the effects of the cumulative trends identified in diploma mills and online learning, and in the domination of "on the job" management and information technology education, are twofold: The IC has to rely on more and more talent (even in the form of contractors) from outside their own agencies, and that creates a vicious cycle increasing profit-making and managerial influences over policy.


Failing to cultivate internal intellectual talent for future leadership positions has also subtly influenced how political leaders view their options. Senior and retired military officers now dominate in decision-making positions traditionally filled by civilian leaders. The trend in the previous three administrations has also been to appoint Washington political figures to top decision-making positions, eschewing professionals who come out of the ranks.

An examination of the formal educations of Top Secret workers affirms a widening gulf between elected/confirmed decision-makers and the national security rank and file — and between the rank and file and society at large. Whether a Democrat or Republican administration, the national security community is not creating future high-level leadership; at the same time, it's becoming more isolated from broader society.

Where once the intelligence community and the military attracted a broad sampling of the best minds in America, today a small, conservative, self-selected, and self-perpetuating sub-class populates an ever more insular world. Before 9/11, among the top 10 schools granting doctoral degrees to Top Secret workers, seven were public, three were private not-for profit, and two were Ivy League schools. After 9/11, six of the top 10 schools granting doctoral degrees to Top Secret workers are solely or predominately online for-profit schools. Two are public (George Mason and the University of Maryland), and two are private not-for-profits (Nova Southeastern University and George Washington University).


The absence of a draft, the end of the Cold War, and the growth of data collection all contribute. Today a singular grand strategy doesn't exist, and partisanship plays a larger and larger role in national security strategy. When President Barack Obama came into office, a little-understood byproduct of these trends was on display: There wasn't a cadre of civilian candidates from outside the Beltway to carry out the president's individual vision in national security. The White House national security advisor and the Director of National Intelligence ended up being retired generals; the Secretary of Defense a Republican holdover; the CIA director a professional politician out of Congressional (and former administration) ranks; the Secretary of State a former senator and political rival.

After 15 years of war, the intellectual acumen of the IC seems to have declined rather than increased. There have been titanic advances in the collection, processing, and storage of data; and targeted killing has reached singular pinpoint perfection. Facts are abundant about every truck, every transaction, every communication, but context seems to be lost.

And sometimes the facts are lost as well. Today, Kamal Abdullah, PhD, his TS/SCI clearance in hand, continues to toil as part of the global war on terror. Iraqi dialect is still in demand, and he is learning the subtleties of the Yemeni and Syrian tongue. When asked about his "course fees" of almost $25,000 to buy his masters and doctorate degrees, he is as philosophical about the career advancement tax as he is about the war itself, willing to talk about his experiences and accomplishments, and how good he is in the nuance of communications as transmitted in text and coded language. But he is shy about offering an opinion about the war itself, or even about his experiences as an American fighting in the Middle East alongside those who couldn't speak the language and, he hints, didn't care to. But that's all he'll say. Someone else might be listening in.

Related: Pentagon Official Defends Wasteful $800 Million Effort to Build Business in Afghanistan

On the subject Rochville University, he points out that it has 20,000 to 30,000 students at any one time. He adds that no one counseled him not to attend, and nobody has questioned his right to call himself a doctor.

Our conversation reaches an awkward pause when it is revealed to him that the school lists its corporate headquarters not just in Basel, Switzerland and Paris, but also Qeshm Island. The latter is the largest island in the Persian Gulf, dominating the northern coast of the Strait of Hormuz.

It is in Iran. So much for US intelligence.

Follow William M. Arkin (@warkin) and Alexa O'Brien (@carwinb) on Twitter.

Photo via Flickr