a New Spy School

October 1, 2012
By Max Cacas

The National Intelligence University prepares for its fifth decade with a shift in focus and a change in venue.

The National Intelligence University, which provides advanced training to U.S. intelligence professionals, is transitioning from an institution primarily focused on the U.S. Defense Department to one serving the entire intelligence community. This reflects the new emphasis toward sharing and collaboration within the nation's intelligence apparatus.

To make the change a reality, National Intelligence University (NIU) leaders are rethinking and expanding the educational programs the institution offers. Plans also are underway to relocate the university to its own new campus in the very near future—in part to bolster its perception as an intelligence community strategic resource.

Dr. David R. Ellison, president of the NIU, says that the change began with the appointment of James Clapper as the director of National Intelligence in 2010. “Director Clapper recognized that if we were going to have a National Intelligence University in the intelligence community, the best place to start was with an accredited institution that had already achieved success in an academic area,” Ellison explains. He adds that Clapper went on to draft a memorandum to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, defining education as a force multiplier and a tool that must be used to the advantage of the entire intelligence community.

“What he envisioned was that the then-National Intelligence College would become the National Intelligence University, and it would provide accredited education, academic research and academic outreach to the intelligence community as a whole,” Ellison points out.

The change meant that the NIU would transition from being an arm of the Defense Department to become part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It would serve all of the constituent agencies of the intelligence community, which includes the Defense Department.

“We now take a whole-of-government approach to the way we do business in both the civilian intelligence community and in the defense community,” Ellison outlines. "We’re trying to bring the military together, the Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA], the State Department, FBI and CIA, because they all have to work together in the real world.”

He also says that a big part of the way the NIU operates involves “creating the diversity not only in the faculty that’s doing the teaching, but also in the student body since the richness of the education can come from the diversity of the students.” Part of the effort to divest the NIU from its mostly military roots and become an intelligence community resource will involve a change in venue. The NIU currently is housed within the headquarters building of the Defense Intelligence Agency, situated at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C. In 2014, the NIU is slated to move to its own new headquarters and main campus on the former grounds of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in Bethesda, Maryland. The NGA relocated last year to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, as part of the base realignment and closure process.

The move is one with important symbolism. “We still have a perception in the intelligence community as a defense entity. We’re not a defense entity; we’re an intelligence entity,” Ellison declares.

Ellison says that along with helping to set a new identity for the NIU, the move also will make it possible to expand future enrollment. In defining mission success for the NIU, he says, “Your program has to be relevant; it has to be accessible; and it has to exist over the life of an intelligence professional’s career.”

He believes the kind of education that the NIU provides to the intelligence community is crucial. “It’s important that our intelligence professionals be adaptive, that they be agile, and that they be innovative, and even be able to think out ahead of adversaries,” Ellison explains.

The NIU’s strategic plan defines the academic program for the education of intelligence analysts. “We require critical thinking, along with a depth of knowledge about the intelligence community,” Ellison says. As part of their education, “We challenge them to use their skills in taking on a research project, and all individuals must complete a research thesis over the 10 months that they are here.”

At a time when cybersecurity and information technology are very important parts of the work of the intelligence community, Ellison reports that the NIU’s Anthony G. Oettinger School of Science and Technology Intelligence is offering programs to help analysts deal with the ever-changing information technology landscape. “We have concentrations in emerging and disruptive technologies, weapons of mass destruction, denial and deception, geostrategic resources, along with cybersecurity.” He also says that the NIU is developing its own cyber laboratory as part of the effort to keep the school’s science and technology offerings on the cutting edge.

Another way that the university serves the entire intelligence community is to provide a means to promote and foster interagency cooperation and collaboration. “When I sit down and I talk to our students, I find that almost 100 percent of the time, they say that the most valuable thing they got out of the school was the fact that they were studying intelligence problems sitting beside an Air Force person, an Army person, a Coast Guard person, FBI, DEA, State,” Ellison explains. Personal relationships sometimes can mean success or failure when officials from different agencies must work together to solve a common intelligence problem.

In adjusting to serve the civilian agencies that are part of the intelligence community, Ellison points out an important distinction between Defense Department and civilian intelligence groups is their ability to send staff to participate in the NIU's education programs. While military intelligence organizations readily can replace personnel sent to the university for additional training, the same is not always the case for civilian agencies. “If the FBI, for example, sends someone over here, that person is lost for a year,” he emphasizes. And, managers are sometimes reluctant to release key operational personnel for an extended period of time.

Ellison says it depends on how much the institution values education. “There are those who say it’s much more important that I take one year and develop that intelligence professional to be a long-term asset for me, even though I have to figure out how to compensate.” At the same time, he says, the NIU is borrowing a page from more traditional universities and colleges to make it possible for busy intelligence professionals to receive the training they need.

“We have to extend and be much more accessible so that people can do this as easily as possible. We have full-time programs; we have Reserve programs; we have weekend executive programs; we have part-time programs and so forth,” he adds.

Agencies are more willing to give their employees time to pursue NIU degrees with part-time programs, even though it takes several years to complete their degrees, Ellison emphasizes. Also, like other educational institutions, the university offers part-time degree programs at places such as the University of Maryland in College Park, and at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The NIU has worked with the military’s U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) to establish a four-month intelligence certificate program focusing on China that is taught by NIU instructors at PACOM headquarters in Hawaii.

The NIU president, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, says a key to the university’s success is that like other institutions of higher education, its programs are subjected to rigorous academic review on a regular basis by outside auditors from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. These reviews ensure that the school’s programs fulfill the goals that they set. The NIU has been a member of this consortium since 1983 and last was reviewed in 2008.


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