Learning Real-World Intelligence Analysis

September 6, 2013
George I. Seffers
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An Auburn University program allows students to solve real problems with the intelligence community.

Officials at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, are developing a program that allows students from any academic discipline to work closely with the U.S. intelligence community in a variety of actual national security-related problems. The university is on track to begin offering a minor in intelligence analysis in the relatively near future and a major in the next five years.

Implemented about a year ago, the program is described as a work in progress. In fact, it has not yet been officially named, but will likely be called the Intelligence Analysis Program. “The goal of the program is to train the future analysts for the intelligence community, the military and business. "What we are trying to do is to provide a learning environment in which students have to deal with real analytical problems,” reports Robert Norton, professor and director of the Open Source Intelligence Laboratory, Auburn University. “We’re not just using things like case studies. We’re actually working current problems. And we do so in an environment where they’re working under an operational tempo similar to what is experienced in the intelligence community.”

Future intelligence analysts learn how analytical products are put together, how data is validated and how to communicate findings in a timely manner. “What we say is that our students work on real problems with real customers. We are working with the intelligence community, we’re working with various combatant commands, and we’re working with various businesses,” Norton says.

Norton acknowledges that similar programs exist at other schools, but he observes that Auburn, with its heavy focus on science and engineering, takes a different approach. “We have a large, highly respected engineering school, so we draw a lot of students from the engineering programs. One of the areas that we look at in great depth is foreign science and technology. We look at what other countries are doing, trying to determine whether or not that technology could be a potential threat to the United States at some point,” he explains. “We’re looking at countries like China, or it could even be a friendly nation where we’re looking at whether they’re doing something better in finding solutions to problems that the United States might be interested in.”

The program draws political science students who are interested in what effect foreign science and technology may have on the United States, such as the effect on State Department policy. Some math students, on the other hand, join because they are interested in cryptography.

The program also focuses heavily on cyber-oriented issues. In fact, the effort falls under the purview of the Cyber Initiative, which is “designed to address the current and emerging issues related to cybersecurity—all things cyber. It ranges from software, hardware, protocols and strategies,” Norton offers. Auburn was just named by the National Security Agency as a center of excellence in cyber operations.

Students also may be involved in evaluating and comparing software—intelligence analysis technology, for example—for government or industry customers. “Being a university, we’re not a proponent for any one software. We are a proponent of good software. So, what we could do is look at software in parallel to other software packages,” Norton says. Additionally, companies can submit their own software for analysis and feedback.

The university benefits from its proximity to Fort Benning, Georgia, as well as military bases in Alabama, including Maxwell Air Force Base, Fort Rucker and Redstone Arsenal. Along with Auburn’s ROTC program, the bases offer a number of students with clearances. Having a clearance, however, is not a requirement for the program. “In many cases, we can do a great deal of the work—probably about 85 percent of the work—with non-cleared students. If you’re evaluating science, much of that information is publicly available through library systems, through scientific journals and engineering journals,” Norton allows.

Although the program is in the early stages, it is expected to expand rather quickly. “Right now, we’re in the process of putting together a minor in intelligence and information analysis. We’re then going to move from a minor to a major. We have a couple of departments that have expressed an interest in that. We hope within a five-year period to have a degree program,” Norton reveals.


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