Intelligence Center Students Focus on Global Pandemic

Fifth annual event united top students from across the nation with national agency representatives

OXFORD, Miss. – A fictional emergence of a new strain of avian bird flu leading to a global pandemic was resolved in part by a group of University of Mississippi students working through a recent intelligence case study.

The scenario was probed by more than 50 students in UM’s Center for Intelligence and Security Studies program. The case was a means for them to become familiar with the analytic process of gathering intelligence information.

“This year’s Days of Intrigue exercise was the largest yet hosted by CISS,” said Melissa Graves, the center’s project coordinator. “Because the center was recently named a Center of Academic Excellence by the director of national intelligence, the exercise had a truly national flavor.”

The ISS students were joined by student scholars visiting from other Center of Academic Excellence schools, including Florida International University, Florida A&M University, Jackson State University, Miles College and the University of Southern Florida.

CISS based the exercise upon findings of a 2010 exercise run by the Office of the Director of National Security in Washington D.C., in which regional experts predicted various countries’ reactions and possible security issues related to such an emerging virus.

“Students were divided into five agencies, led by mentors from the actual agencies,” Graves said. “The teams included CIA, DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), FBI, NSA and the State Department’s INR (Bureau of Intelligence and Research).”

During the “crisis,” ISS students assembled diplomatic cables, analyzed extremists groups, pored over social media databases, dissected financial records and conducted searches of geospatial data. They worked through evidence and briefed national security experts and VIP policymakers who made the journey to Oxford from D.C. (In actuality, none of these events related to a pandemic happened.)

Through each high-pressure session, the teams received valuable exposure to the policies, methods and practices of each intelligence agency.

“The University of Mississippi’s historic Bryant Hall was completely taken over by the exercise,” said Walter Flashcka, network administrator. “Bryant’s high ceilings, Federalist architecture, spacious classrooms and sumptuous reception area gave the exercise a true Beltway feel.”

The exercise was managed by a “white cell” team in the basement through an ad hoc cluster of computer workstations. The team answered intelligence queries, released video footage and fresh evidence and updated participants on international developments through a full-fledged international news website.

“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.

“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 exercise after she attended an intelligence seminar in 2009 that included working through several case studies.

“At the same time, Walter Flaschka 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. Having Walter’s technology expertise has allowed us to create the sort of all-source intelligence that actual IC exercises might use. Thanks to Walter, we can simulate such realistic forms of evidence such as social media.”

Led by Carl Jensen, assistant professor of legal studies and former FBI special agent, the center offers a minor in intelligence and security studies, and it helped create 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 CISS 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.

More than 200 students have participated in the program by taking an introductory intelligence course, Graves said.

In March, the center selected its fourth 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