Censorship or saving grace? Academic Scholarship and Intelligence Vetting

A new article by The Moscow Times revealed a mixed reaction to supposed FSB ‘vetting’ of academic scholarship.

The Times, which has largely become a holding repository of intense criticism of the Russian government (and no, the irony of a media organization sharply critical of the government for infringing on media freedom has apparently not sunken in yet in Moscow), is clearly siding high on the indignation side of this issue: for the most part the article is a not-so-thinly veiled accusation of Russian intelligence services trying to basically return the country’s academic community to a Soviet-era intellectual censorship system. And while it is true there are examples of Russian academics unfortunately being subjected to investigation and even arrest, there are aspects to this story that are importantly irresponsible and propagandistic.

The past is no help to the Russian Federation in this case. Older generation academics indeed remember all too well a time when literally all academic scholarship had to be ‘approved’ by the KGB. The article that the Moscow Times took from the prestigious journal Nature highlighted how scientists today need to seek ‘permission’ from their home university’s First Department, an entity that supposedly exists in all Russian universities and is meant to be ‘closely associated’ with the FSB. It is at this point that even the Times article gets a bit confusing. Administration officials in the powerful Moscow State University admit that faculty meetings had taken place discussing the need to have original scholarship reviewed, but that this process has long been in place as a source for improving the standards of quality and citation rate and in no way is associated with the FSB. In addition, even at MSU, the vanguard of Russian academic institutions, the practice of First Department vetting seems to be selectively engaged, where certain departments are required to submit scholarship while other departments are not. It is not readily clear, to the Times, Nature, or the faculty of MSU, what decision-making process is involved to determine which departments receive scrutiny. And as one might expect in this situation, wherever there is confusion or ambiguity, there goes suspicion and dread. Given the history of Soviet censorship and contemporary worries about academic freedom, it is not entirely shocking that academic and media groups in Russia would profess concern about the insidiousness of the overall process. But I cannot help but see some less sinister possibilities that explain this situation.

Anyone affiliated with university administration, ANY university administration, is well-acquainted with what can only be called an interminable and seemingly illogical bureaucracy that often eludes the principles of rationality and sanity. The idea that a huge institution like Moscow State University might make decisions that are not standardized or universal, that do not apply to all departments across the board, and even perhaps make decisions that seem contradictory and inexplicable to its faculty, is so commonplace all over the academic globe that it is almost not worth mentioning. The essence of academic bureaucracy often seems to be about good intentions badly performed. The inconsistency of First Department application across Russian universities could and likely is easily explained by this frustrating intellectual reality all scholars face, regardless of a country’s specific history with censorship. But even this is minor compared to the larger issue not being properly discussed in the Times article: standard procedures of oversight on scholarship that deals with sensitive topics and materials.

The Nature journal understandably focuses on the hard sciences, but this issue falls on all academics, even students, who produce material that engage national security interests. The idealistic utopia that some academics proclaim should be the standard for intellectual engagement has ALWAYS been a myth: there is no country and no university where professors and advanced students can simply ‘write whatever they want and go talk to whomever they want whenever they want,’ especially at institutions that have either a connection to government or have persons under their employ or guidance who are also affiliated with government agencies. This is not about Russia slowly creeping back into some weird form of Soviet revanchism. This is about all countries. For example, my own program has had issues with this challenge as it concerns the analytical commentary endeavor, The Caspian Project: given that I run an International Security and Intelligence Studies Program in the United States, it is not outrageous to learn that some of my students are already employed or were formerly employed by the US government or American military. Every single student in my program that has had this affiliation and wanted to contribute to The Caspian Project has had to submit their work ahead of time to ‘vetting services,’ either in the US government or the military, to simply ascertain that no classified information was accessed in order to write the pieces and no secret information was revealed in the pieces themselves. In America, some have derisively referred to this as a ‘post-Snowden reflex,’ implying the United States Intelligence Community still stings from the embarrassment of the theft and release of thousands of classified documents by Edward Snowden. While there may be a small bit of truth to that, the reality is this process has always existed in America and will exist in any other country that considers itself important on the global stage and having significant national security secrets to maintain (ie, every single country on earth, quite frankly). What the derision and suspicion of articles like the one in Nature or the commentary provided by The Moscow Times fail to understand or recognize is just how easy it is to unknowingly violate national security laws in a given country. That is the aspect sorely needed within this debate and what I provide here.

Academics who do not have familiarity with or exposure to working with the government often have a ‘Hollywoodized’ vision of national security and what it means for information to be Top Secret and classified. The old American Supreme Court adage in the 1970s about pornography (what is porn? I’ll know it when I see it) does not apply here, though most academics unwisely think it does. Unfortunately, the process of classification and designation of Top Secret is not intuitively logical or easily surmised. An academic can easily be working on materials or topics that seem far-removed from issues of national security and yet the conclusions and originality devised from said sources end up pushing the work incredibly close if not beyond the standards under which the government works and is beholden to. This is why preemptive vetting is a much safer process for the academic: failing to get that formal approval exposes the scholar in question to the accusations seen in the Times article. It is not a question of how many times the material has been discussed in public or whether or not it has been published previously. The Times uses that fact to show the unjustness of the system, intimating that something was first ‘fine’ because it was presented previously and then later on the academic falls under the thumb of FSB suspicion. In my world, here in the United States, this is an area where it is most assuredly not better to ‘ask forgiveness rather than seek permission.’ Too many academics working in important areas of national security, whether directly or indirectly, cannot be so cavalier: put simply, asking forgiveness does not usually go over so well when dealing with a country’s intelligence community. I know for a fact that is the case for America. There is no reason it would be any different for the Russian Federation. The fact that information can go unnoticed at first just means it is a failure of bureaucracy, which is why academics in every country are usually charged with the responsibility of seeking the vetting themselves. Host governments are basically de facto admitting they do not believe in the efficacy of their own bureaucratic institutions. And rightly so.

This is what leads us to the final important point about academics in general: while on the whole wonderfully engaged and purely intentioned when tackling new scholarship, our naiveté as a group can get a bit overwhelming. When tackling scholarship that clearly cannot touch in any way national security interests, this trait can be endearing if also eccentric. When researching issues that do matter to national security, this trait makes us dangerous to ourselves. In such a way the existence of a First Department at a university (an organ that does not exist in American universities and thus makes the still required vetting process more labyrinthine and unknowable for scholars and students alike) can potentially speed up what no doubt will always be an excruciating example of bureaucracy run amok. But dealing with an inefficient, illogical, and sometimes inexplicable bureaucratic organ ahead of time is far superior to dealing with the unemotional, ruthless, and cutting professionalism of your country’s law enforcement. This reality should be considered when we read articles like the one in the Times. Is this censorship rearing its ugly head back into the world of the academy or is this a saving grace helping academics avoid their own worst habits? Bureaucracy can indeed often be dumb. But that doesn’t always automatically mean it is also a demon.

Dr. Matthew Crosston
Dr. Matthew Crosston
Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/