Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Church Committee reveals CIA operations in universities

This year, a special Committee set up by the U.S. Senate reported the findings of an investigation on alleged links between academia and the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). The 'Select Committee To Study Governmental Operations With Respect To Intelligence Activities' was also known as the 'Church Committee' because it was led by Senator Frank Church (A Democrat from Idaho). For over a year, the Church Committee investigated more than 100 universities that were purported to have CIA officials on staff.

At that time, it was suspected that the CIA had departed from its original mission of gathering intelligence and was conducting secret operations of various kinds. This included plots to destabilize foreign governments and to assassinate foreign leaders, and conducting unethical and illegal activities like the administration of LSD to unsuspecting citizens to tests it effects or the Watergate scandal (Zinn 1980). The Senate Church Committee investigation reported that in some years the CIA spent about 80 percent of its budget for covert operations - while at the same time claiming an improbable small covert action budget (McGehee 1983).

The fact that the CIA had developed secret relationships with academics was already well known in some social sciences circles of developing countries as a result of Project Camelot. This project, which operated since the mid-1960s, was basically organized espionage under the disguise of sociological research (Herman 1998). Horowitz (1967) described it as a military counterinsurgency project funded by the CIA with a first year budget of eight million dollars that envisioned an alliance of the Pentagon and the academic community. The Camelot Project was active in Africa (especially Senegal and Nigeria) in Asia (mainly in India, Vietnam, and Laos) and in Latin America (particularly in Chile, Uruguay, Colombia, and Venezuela).

The Church Report to the US Senate clearly showed that the clandestine connections between the CIA and the academic community were not only occurring in faraway countries, but also in US universities. On Book I of document, dated April 1976, the Church Commission stated the following:

The Central Intelligence Agency has long-developed clandestine relationships with the American academic community, which range from academics making introductions for intelligence purposes to intelligence collection while abroad, to academic research and writing where CIA sponsorship is hidden.

The Central Intelligence Agency is now using several hundred American academics ("academics" includes administrators, faculty members and graduate students engaged in teaching), who in addition to providing leads and, on occasion, making introductions for intelligence purposes, occasionally write books and other material to be used for propaganda purposes abroad. Beyond these, an additional few are used in an unwitting manner for minor activities.

These academics are located in over 100 American colleges, universities, and related institutes. At the majority of institutions, no one other than the individual concerned is aware of the CIA link. At the others, at least one university official is aware of the operational use made of academics on his campus. In addition, there are several American academics abroad who serve operational purposes, primarily the collection of intelligence.

Although the numbers are not as great today as in 1966, there are no prohibitions to prevent an increase in the operational use of academics. The size of these operations is determined by the CIA…

…The Committee is disturbed both by the present practices of operationally using American academics and by the awareness that the restraints on expanding this practice are primarily those of sensitivity to the risks of disclosure and not an appreciation of dangers to the integrity of individuals and institutions. The Committee believes that it is the responsibility of private institutions and particularly the American academic community to set the professional and ethical standards of its members.

Although not much is known yet about the real extent of CIA involvement in academia during the late 20th century because many documents are still classified, the evidence provided by the Church Report is alarming enough. It is now known that the CIA funded centers at higher education institutions like MIT, Harvard, and Columbia. It is also known that there was a heavy CIA presence, usually through Foundations like Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, in the development of international studies and area studies on many U.S. campuses (Simpson 1998). Furthermore, some documents recently released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reveal that in the 1950s the American Anthropological Association (AAA) entered into covert relationships with the CIA. Anthropologist David Pierce (2000) notes that such relationships included establishing a liaison position between the Association and the CIA, and secretly providing the CIA with a detailed list of the Association's membership detailing individuals' backgrounds and areas of expertise.

As the members of the Church Commission pointed out, these practices are deeply disturbing and alarming, and it is the responsibility of the academic community to set the professional and ethical standards of its members. The problem is that it is very difficult -if not impossible- to ensure such standards if these secret practices are unknown to the academic community, as no one other than the individual concerned is aware of the link.


Herman, Hellen. "Project Camelot and the Career of Cold War Psychology." In Christopher Simpson (ed.) Universities and Empire: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences during the Cold War, (New York: The New Press, 1998, pp. 97-133.

Horowitz, Irving (ed.)., The Rise and Fall of Project Camelot. M.I.T. Press, 1967.

Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri. The CIA and American Democracy. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

McGehee, Ralph. Deadly Deceits. Sheridan Square Press,1983.

Price, David. The American Anthropological Association and the CIA? Anthropology News, November 2000, pp. 13-14

Simpson, Christopher, ed. Universities and Empire: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences During the Cold War. New York: The New Press, 1998.

The Church Committee on the CIA in Academia 

Zinn, Howard (1980). A People's History of the United States. Harper, pp. 543-544.

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