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Spies Among Us


Friday’s news that President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to conduct electronic surveillance in the United States reminded me of one of my earliest academic arguments at Trinity. In 1971, in the spring semester of my freshman year, I enrolled in the Political Science “Field Work” course along with many other first year students who intended to study Poli-Sci and then go on to careers in politics and law. Field Work was a required course at that time (a precursor to the idea of internships), and we had to pick a topic to study through interviewing people in Washington. We also had to work in teams, a terrific pedagogy that was a new idea back then. The whole concept seemed so new and exciting — we would ride the Senate subway for days an interview Senators and their staff about the important issues of the day! Those were the days of Vietnam and protests and civil rights struggles. President Nixon was in office, and Watergate was still more than a year away. The climate in Washington was full of conflict and intrigue.

My team of young political scientists included me and two other classmates with whom I shared a desire to study a topic that was pretty hot in student protest circles in those days — the idea that our government might be spying on civilians. We were convinced by some older students that this was something that needed to be exposed, and that a field work paper on this topic could be shocking to the world. So, of course, we Trinity Women wanted to do just that!

But when we proposed our topic to the professor supervising our field research, she was taken aback. No, she said, that’s impossible. Our government would not “spy” on civilians! There’s nothing to study! Our professor was convinced that this topic had no future, and was not worth studying.

My friends and I protested: “…but how do you know unless you investigate?” we asked the professor. There’s only so much time in the semester, she replied, and you must choose a topic that has substance.

We could not identify any other topic that would hold the same interest for us. So, she gave us an assignment: the anti-ballistic missile system. We were stunned. But we soon were riding the Senate subway trying to collar senators and staffers to talk to us about their views on the ABM treaty. One of our team even followed Senator Kennedy into a men’s room in the Capitol in order to get his quote. We camped outside of Henry Kissenger’s Georgetown home in the futile hope of scoring an interview with him. We eventually interviewed scores of people and wrote an “A” paper. (Along the way we also gathered convincing evidence that the massive concrete silos at McMillan Reservoir were not missile silos, a popular myth among students at that time.)

But long after we moved onto other courses, we still felt that we had missed an opportunity to study something very important.

35 years later, Trinity’s budding political scientists continue to debate the contentious issues of the day with fervor and well-disciplined study. More opportunities than ever are open to Trinity students as they explore the great issues of this day.

This year, an extraordinary new opportunity arose when the Intelligence Community awarded a major grant to Trinity to establish an Intelligence Studies program here. Through this program, Trinity students have been able to study abroad and explore new career pathways that have become critically important as a result of September 11.

Some alumnae and others have asked me why Trinity would associate with the Intelligence Community. Some have suggested that this is incompatible with our commitment to social justice. To be sure, Trinity’s values compel us to stand against any actions, including governmentally-sponsored actions, that are illegal, immoral, or degrading to human dignity.

But Trinity’s values of honor and integrity, strong moral capacity and commitment to social justice, are precisely the values that must be present in the federal workforce, including in the intelligence agencies and military, as well as the more typical locations where Trinity students and alums work on the Hill and at the White House. We believe that Trinity students and alumnae can and should have these career opportunities open to them so that the benefits of the Trinity value system will be present in public policy choices and policy implementation. Trinity alumnae have already worked with great distinction in the intelligence field for many years.

Whether President Bush’s direction to the National Security Agency was legal will be for the courts to decide. Whether protecting the United States from terrorists requires the repression and even abandonment of the very civil liberties the President is sworn to protect seems clear: absolutely not. This includes torture as well as abridgement of other fundamental human rights and dignities. This is about values, not politics. People on both sides of the aisle agree that our values as a free people insist that our leaders act morally, which includes respect for human rights and civil liberties of all people. Tactics do not trump values. The important work of intelligence and national security can occur in ways that are legal, moral and effective. To suggest that the first two must concede to the third is the ultimate in Machiavellian thinking.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: