Collaboration with national security expert leads to noteworthy findings, memorable summer for Stanford students

Two Stanford students worked with Amy Zegart, a national security and intelligence expert, this past summer examining U.S. intelligence agencies. Their work will be included in Zegart’s upcoming book.

Stanford undergraduates Katherine Irajpanah and Tien Vo spent the past few months collaborating with one of the nation’s leading experts on national security, intelligence and foreign policy, researching spy fiction and congressional intelligence committees.

Tien Vo and Amy Zegart

Stanford sophomore Tien Vo, left, discusses her research with Professor Amy Zegart during their meeting in early September. (Image credit: Alex Shashkevich)

It was a memorable summer as the students examined U.S. intelligence agencies – including how little the public knows about them – under the mentorship of Amy Zegart, senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). The team’s research project was part of Stanford’s Summer Research College, coordinated by the Department of Political Science and the Program in International Relations.

The students’ findings will help Zegart, a former member of the Clinton administration’s National Security Council staff and foreign policy adviser to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, with her upcoming book, tentatively titled, The CIA Declassified.

“Lots of people have opinions on intelligence but not many have data,” said Zegart, adding that she hopes her book helps educate more of the public on this subject.

Better late than never

This summer’s work on intelligence agencies was especially meaningful to Irajpanah, a junior majoring in international relations. She still remembers that the textbook from her high school U.S. government course included a section on intelligence agencies, but the class skipped that part of the book due to time constraints.

“It was a bit frustrating,” said Irajpanah, who has long been interested in international relations and national security. “So that moment stuck with me.”

Of the top 26 universities ranked in U.S. News and World Report in 2016, almost twice as many schools offer classes about rock ‘n’ roll than on intelligence agencies, Irajpanah said. Her research also found that at the high school level, over the past 10 years, only one Advanced Placement exam on U.S. government and politics included a question about foreign policy and national security.

Irajpanah’s research also focused on the growth in popularity of spy fiction and how little information about actual spies are provided by the government, by academia or through the media.

The U.S. government has become more secretive over the past decade, classifying millions more documents compared to the 2000s. About 84 million documents were classified between 2010 and 2014, compared to about 27 million between 2005 and 2009. About 12 million documents were classified between 2000 and 2004, according to Irajpanah’s research.

In the meantime, films about fictional characters like James Bond and author Tom Clancy’s books about spies grew in popularity and even captivated some politicians. For example, former vice president Dan Quayle once was quoted saying about Clancy’s novels: “They’re not just novels … They’re read as the real thing.”

“The sway that spy fiction can have over our policymakers is quite profound and that surprised me,” Irajpanah said of her research. “The danger in all of this is you might see spy policy be affected by spy media.”

Unproductive oversight

Vo’s research examined the efficiency and productivity of intelligence oversight committees in the U.S. Congress. She combed through hundreds of digitized congressional records over the past 30 years and found that the intelligence committees, out of all other committees, produced the least number of bills and spent the least amount of time on hearings.

“There is a gray area between the secret nature of the agencies’ work and the appropriate levels of productivity and openness of the oversight committees,” Vo said.  “But we believe congressional oversight of intelligence agencies can still be much more productive and active, without affecting the confidentiality aspect.”

In addition, most of the representatives serving on those committees did not have experience in intelligence agencies. Currently, only 10 out of 535 members in Congress have any sort of experience with U.S. intelligence agencies, and only one of them, Rep. Willian Hurd (R-Texas), has previously worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.

“We know that the congressional oversight committees are not doing a great job,” Vo said. “But it’s a complicated problem to solve. The only thing we can do at this point is continue researching and talking about it.”

Vo and Irajpanah said they are grateful for the opportunity to work with Zegart. The three met every week during the summer.

“Being able to interact with Dr. Zegart and Tien and get their feedback and advice has been a great experience,” Irajpanah said. “That back and forth was invaluable to me as a young researcher.”

Zegart, the Davies Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, said she is glad to be able to invigorate and inspire Stanford students to ask big questions and encourage them to not shy away from the subjects of humanities and social sciences.

She also said that mentoring and working with Irajpanah and Vo has been a stimulus for her work.

“Every time I teach, I learn something new,” Zegart said. “The Summer Research College is not just a great opportunity for the students but it’s also a great opportunity for the faculty to collaborate with the amazing students here at Stanford.”