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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Russian Spy in My Econ Class

Earlier this summer, the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) said it had intercepted a Russian military intelligence officer who was posing as Viktor (sometimes Victor) Muller Ferreira, a Brazilian 30-something on his way to start an internship at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. According to the Dutch authorities, his real name is Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, and if he had successfully entered the Netherlands and started the internship, the alleged spy could have sent information back to Moscow about proceedings at the court, which is investigating possible war crimes in Georgia and Ukraine.

The news cycle moved on to more important concerns with Russia, but I was knocked back: Almost exactly four years ago, I started a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC, alongside the alleged Russian spy. I instantly recognized his face from the images that surfaced on the internet. We had 13 Facebook friends in common. After racking my brain and conferring with friends, I remembered he was the dude who rolled into international trade theory class carrying a motorcycle helmet. (SAIS confirmed to The Washington Post that a student named Victor Muller Ferreira graduated in 2020 but has otherwise said little about the case.)

A spy in our midst! For me, a lot of the value of the degree had come from candid, off-the-record conversations with professors, guests, and fellow students. These were conversations I’d be unlikely to have either as a regular person or now as a working journalist: discussions about counterinsurgency strategies with people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan; first-person accounts of negotiating with North Koreans and debates in the Obama administration about whether to publicly support the Green Movement in Iran.

Could that environment persist after the revelation of a student who—if the allegations are true—brazenly wasn’t who he said he was and in fact might have been a threat to national security?

A hint of espionage has been intertwined with the SAIS (pronounced like sighs) since its inception. The School of Advanced International Studies was founded in 1943 by presidential adviser and arms control expert Paul Nitze (incidentally, the grandfather of a former WIRED editor), along with Massachusetts congressman Christian Herter. Their goal was to train the men and women who would shape the American-led world the founders believed would emerge after World War II. The school became part of Johns Hopkins University in 1950, and a second campus opened in Bologna, Italy, in 1955. The outpost, rumored to be established with help from the CIA, was certainly a training ground for Western intelligence officers in the early decades. (The CIA declined to comment. I have no idea what’s true, but the whispers certainly affect how the school is perceived.)

In 1986, a third campus opened in Nanjing, China. Two years later, an American professor had a relationship with a (married) Chinese military intelligence officer who was sent to the school to report on what was going on. The professor—whom Chinese authorities believed, almost certainly incorrectly, was working for American intelligence—was expelled from the country. But the Hopkins-Nanjing Center persisted, and graduates of the program say they got a lot from the experience—even if there was always the frisson of mutual suspicion.

The stories about Americans who spied for Cuba are the most dramatic. Ana Montes attended SAIS in the early 1980s and may have been recruited by a classmate to work for Cuban intelligence. Montes went on to a successful career as a Latin America analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), influencing American policy in the region—all while sending information back to Cuba. She was arrested in 2001 and pleaded guilty the following year, causing shock and grief among her colleagues at DIA. To this day, according to one former intelligence officer, Montes is taught as a case study “from day one” in insider threat training.

Riordan Roett, who taught at SAIS for 45 years and was head of Latin American studies, doesn’t recall interacting with Montes but notes that the school was a revolving door of full- and part-time students, plus countless adjuncts. In the 1980s, when debates about American policy in Latin America were roiling Washington, more left-leaning students and professors tended to band together. “I was told later her favorite phrase for me was FF, fucking fascist, which I took as a point of honor,” he says.

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Roett does remember Kendall Myers, a longtime adjunct professor and former State Department intelligence analyst, who in 2009 pleaded guilty (along with his wife Gwen) to spying for Cuba for nearly 30 years. Things began to unravel for Myers on his 72nd birthday, when an undercover FBI source approached him outside a SAIS building, gifted him a Cuban cigar, and said he was passing along greetings from a Cuban intelligence officer. A series of meetings in hotel lobbies followed, during which the couple discussed tradecraft with the undercover agent and admitted to spying for Cuba.

Many years earlier, when Roett was teaching in Buenos Aires, the Myerses invited him to dinner while they were passing through town. After the couple was arrested, he learned that the real purpose of the trip was to meet their handlers. “Once the faculty heard he’d been arrested, we were very much surprised because he was a charming guy and his wife was charming as well,” Roett recalls. “Why the hell he wound up being a Cuban spy, I have absolutely no idea.”

I didn’t know any of this when I showed up for orientation in August 2018. It’s not exactly the stuff you include in an admissions brochure, although all of these stories are easy to find on the internet. I knew that many of my classmates and professors would be current and former US government employees, often with high-level security clearances—that was a big part of the appeal. US government agencies, including the CIA, held recruiting sessions at the school, but there was never anything cloak-and-dagger about it, although some sessions were only open to US citizens.

When I read about Cherkasov, I feared the freewheeling environment of SAIS would be lost. A professor who had Cherkasov in class and wrote a recommendation for him said on Twitter that he felt “naive” and “played.” Some students have said they wish the school would provide more information.

But history suggests that little will change. Daniel Golden, author of Spy Schools, which looks at the way both American and foreign intelligence services operate within American universities, says that from a school’s point of view, “it makes it look like they’re in the game” if foreign intelligence services think it's worth planting spies or recruiting students there.

As for the previous spy scandals, did they change the school or cause professors to turn on one another? “Nope. Not at all,” says Roett. “I think deep down, we always suspected that there were probably one or two students working on behalf of their government or susceptible to being recruited. But that isn’t the kind of question you can ask somebody in an admissions interview. And we were very cautious not to pin people against the wall without proof or evidence. We can’t do that in America. So what happened, happened.”

An environment in which students and teachers report on each other would be “just poisonous”—not to mention a violation of academic freedom and students’ civil liberties, says John McLaughlin, a longtime professor at SAIS and former deputy director of the CIA. “It’s not possible for a school to have a counterintelligence policy,” he says. “The filter has to be US immigration.” Even if they tried, it’s hard to imagine schools could successfully root out spies: Myers fooled the State Department for years, as did Montes at DIA. To McLaughlin, the best response might be more openness, rather than closing ranks. “One way to guard against this is to have vigorous discussions so that students are shown debate and freedom of thought and expression,” he adds. “That can be infectious.”

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Golden believes schools that promise to train students for sensitive jobs need to do a better job of warning students that intelligence services take advantage of the openness of American universities. “If they wanted to be candid, a school could say, look, we can’t guarantee that the person sitting next to you isn’t a spy for the country or for the United States,” says Golden.

But to a certain extent, schools need to rely on students having good judgment. Getting recruited by an intelligence service requires some agency on the part of the recruit. By all accounts, Montes and Myers were not coerced into working for Cuba, but did so for ideological reasons.

According to a former intelligence officer who attended SAIS in the early 2000s, she and her friends who hoped to apply for US government jobs always had their guards up. “A lot of this is a gut feeling,” she says. Something might not add up, and the best course of action is to steer clear of anyone who makes you nervous. American intelligence officers are taught to be able to talk about their cover and change the subject, and they are required to report any extensive contact with foreigners. More to the point, many mid-career students are military veterans of multiple overseas deployments, so deflecting an overcurious classmate is not a particularly stressful situation.

And learning to operate in an environment like that might be the biggest lesson SAIS has to offer. Navigating ambiguity and judging who’s being truthful is a key part of the jobs many graduates of schools like SAIS hope to land. “In the world they’re going to enter or the world they’re returning to, it’s a fact of life that you can’t trust what people are telling you,” says Golden. “If you’re in international diplomacy, I don’t think you are really much of a diplomat or intelligence officer if you don’t understand that you have to take everything with a grain of salt.”

Of course, some of us gossiped about who might be a spy, who seemed destined for a plum government job, or what might be hidden in the gap on a professor’s resume. It’s a tradition as old as SAIS: A graduate from the 1960s said that back then, the occasional student from behind the Iron Curtain raised eyebrows. It was a fun diversion over happy hour, but we were probably wrong most of the time.

I never suspected Cherkasov was a spy, but I did assume that if there were someone from a foreign intelligence service in our class, they’d be trained not to stick out. It would probably not be the impeccably dressed guy who drove a Lexus, or the person who always mentioned his father was Russian, or the kind of person who worked their security clearance into every conversation.

Cherkasov was sent back to Brazil, and he hasn’t been publicly charged with a crime. (The Russian embassy and foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment.) But his case opens chilling possibilities: Was he reporting on us? According to the Dutch intelligence service, Cherkasov was an “illegal”—an undeclared foreign agent, like the characters in the show The Americans. People I spoke to think he was likely building his cover story, but he may have had incidental opportunities to collect information and recruit.

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And was the US government watching him? An unnamed source told CNN the FBI was investigating Cherkasov at some point; the Washington field office told me it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.

Those answers might never become public, and looking back, I’m not sure what I would have done differently. I might have avoided the public computers in the library and been a little more careful with my devices, although as someone who takes notes by hand, I rarely had a laptop open in class. Avoiding getting to know my international classmates—as some current and prospective government employees do—isn’t something I’d want to consider.

When it comes to the foreign policy anecdotes I learned that never made it into the newspapers, all this makes me think the issue isn’t so much that secrets could escape, but that a lot of information should not be kept secret at all. The vast majority of what guest speakers said wouldn’t be a threat to national security, but some of it might not go over well if it were made public: gripes about the federal bureaucracy, how certain information was obtained.

Once, during an event on campus, someone jokingly called SAIS “Deep State U.” Many of us in the crowd laughed knowingly, but it makes me a little uncomfortable when I think back on it, especially since a narrative has taken hold that the media, academia, and certain factions of the government are in some sort of cabal—passing around information that the public can’t be trusted with. Depending on your perspective, it might be called the Blob, the Regime, or even the Syndicate.

In the end, concerns that spies might be stealing information from the classroom is only part of the risk. Acting as though what happens inside the walls is too precious to slip out—and avoiding directly discussing the spies who have passed through the doors—only heightens the suspicions of those who are looking for a conspiracy or proof that someone is hiding something.

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