OXFORD, Miss. – A fictional planned series of terrorist attacks against the United States was foiled in part by a group of University of Mississippi students working through a recent intelligence case study.
The scenario was probed by 22 students admitted to UM’s Center for Intelligence and Security Studies’ program this spring. The case was a means for them to become familiar with the analytic process of gathering intelligence information.
“This was the first major event with our new cohort,” said Melissa Graves, project coordinator for the center. “We added lots of new elements this year to enhance the experience.”
Strategists envisioned UM students uncovering a terrorist plot stemming from an Israeli attack on an Iranian nuclear plant. Iran concluded that the U.S. supplied weapons to Israel, thereby enabling the attacks. In retaliation, Iran sank an American ship off the Persian Gulf. In response, U.S. and Israeli armed forces launched an airstrike against Tehran.
Anticipating such an occurrence, Iran set up a Hezbollah-supported terror network with plans to launch a nationwide assault on U.S. cities and towns. Through pure bad luck, the CISS student analysts began uncovering the plot. (In actuality, none of these events happened.)
Adding to the realism of the scenario, U.S. Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) and Maj. Gen. James Poss of U.S. Air Force Intelligence participated in the exercise. Other notable guests included Candis Couch Varnell, instructor in family and consumer sciences, actor Johnny McPhail of Oxford, and Saad Abdali of Palantir Technologies, a software company that provides tools for the intelligence community.
“We used Palantir software to analyze huge databases of information that were built for the event,” Graves said. “Five juniors and seniors who comprised the previous cohort during a similar orientation exercise last August returned as team leaders.”
The new students, who range from freshmen to seniors, quickly dove into the case study and within minutes had created a list of needed information, possible scenarios and people to interview.
“The exercise forced students to apply their knowledge of intelligence in a hands-on way,” Graves said. “It reflected several things that intelligence analysts frequently encounter, including an unstoppable deluge of incoming information that may or may not be relevant, a story that doesn’t necessarily fit together as one might assume and a plotline that requires some serious digging in order for it to emerge.”
One student said the orientation was a creative and useful introduction to the intelligence process, and it showed that things are not always what they seem. In fact, the case developed from a Hezbollah-sympathetic mother’s failed efforts to negotiate her son’s release from Guantanamo Bay where he was held on charges of providing material support to terrorists.
“It’s an international world, and working through the case study really demonstrated how important it is to have good intelligence,” said the student, who entered the field because he wants to serve his country.
Graves developed the idea for the “Days of Intrigue” after she attended an intelligence seminar last summer that included working through several case studies.
“At the same time, Walter Flaschka (CISS network administrator) was designing a computer case study for ISS students involving complex intelligence analysis software,” she said. “We decided it would be interesting to create a comprehensive case study allowing students to encounter some of the issues that intelligence analysts face when working on assignments.”
Led by Carl Jensen, assistant professor of legal studies and former special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the center offers a minor in intelligence and security studies, and it triggered an intensive Arabic language program in the Department of Modern Languages, the only such program in the state.
“The ‘Day of Intrigue’ is an example of how the Intelligence and Security Studies minor is a learn-by-doing program,” Jensen said. “Our students got to experience a true-to-life scenario similar to those that intelligence professionals face every day. There is simply no better way to educate and prepare our future analysts.”
The Center for Intelligence and Security Studies was created in fall 2008 and moved into a new facility last spring. Selection for the minor is competitive among interested students, based on applications typically submitted during their sophomore year, Jensen said. All applicants who wish to pursue an internship or employment in an intelligence community agency must pass a background check.
Already, more than 100 students have participated in the program by taking an introductory intelligence course, Graves said.
In March, the center selected its second cohort of students to complete the minor. The students have an average GPA of 3.62, a score comparable to the average GPA for entrance to the UM School of Medicine. The students come from all areas of the university, including the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and the Croft Institute for International Studies.
For more information on the Center for Intelligence and Security Studies, visit http://www.olemiss.edu/ciss/.