By Cathy Gordon ’79
When Jim Olson goes to the mall or the park, he’s sometimes followed by a stealthy group of Aggies, discreetly watching his every move. The tail comes with the territory when training a new generation for clandestine roles in the intelligence world.
“We take our students out on the streets and teach them the hands-on operational skills that they need to know—surveillance, dead drops, signal sites, car tosses, the tapping of phones and bugging of rooms. All the nitty-gritty stuff,” said Olson, whose 31 years as an undercover operative with the CIA uniquely qualifies him to teach intelligence studies at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.
Among the former spy’s accomplishments: tapping into Russia’s top-secret communications cable —its direct line to the Kremlin—during the rivalrous years of the Cold War. He and his wife, Meredith, also a CIA officer, worked secretly in tandem to turn Russian nationals against their government, gaining access to Soviet secrets.
“Our students are here for the right reasons. They want to serve,” said Olson of the Bush School’s program, taught by a faculty of four whose real-world intelligence experience covers the operational side, law enforcement, counterterrorism, intelligence analysis and collection, and military intelligence. “It’s by design that we made our program different. Our students learn from people who have done it.”
While half of the school’s intelligence studies graduates become operatives, the other half enter careers as analysts. “And they hit the ground running,” Olson said. “The CIA, FBI, NSA and other agencies tell us that we are the premier intelligence program in the country.”
Currently, the Bush School offers a two-year Master in International Affairs curriculum with a concentration in intelligence studies. The degree requires students to learn a foreign language, often one of the Big Five “national security” languages: Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Korean or Farsi.
“The foreign language requirement sets us apart,” Olson added. “It’s a big difference maker in who gets hired since most programs don’t require it.”
LEADING THE PACK
The Intelligence Studies Program has been the Bush School’s largest student draw since the graduate school opened in 1997. And it’s becoming more popular, with students competing for classes. More faculty hires and courses are needed to keep up with demand, said Olson, who would like to add courses in imagery intelligence, geospatial intelligence and signals intelligence, as well as more classes in covert action and counterintelligence. “We have many holes to fill.”
Michael Howell ’91, an FBI agent for 23 years, teaches counterterrorism at the Bush School, but would like to add a domestic terrorism course when budget allows, and possibly a field study so students can visit the sites of terrorist attacks. “There are typically hundreds of applicants for each intelligence position,” he explained. “A field study would go a long way toward further setting our students apart from their competition.”
Feedback about Aggie hires is impressive, said Katherine T. Weary ’01, a former intelligence analyst with the NSA who teaches analytic tradecraft, a body of critical thinking skills. “By the time students graduate, they’ve honed those skills and can write and brief in the style of the Intelligence Community,” she said. “I often hear about rapid advancements and promotions, and it’s due to the techniques they learn here. But we’re preparing our graduates to live their lives in the shadows, not for accolades. They have a drive to serve.”
Whatever the graduates’ career paths, they are likely to work within one of the 18 different agencies that make up the Intelligence Community in the government and the U.S. Department of Defense. Prior to graduating, students also become familiar with the defense side and its terminology and practices. “It’s important no matter where students land,” said retired U.S. Army Col. Matt Gill, who teaches military intelligence as a guest lecturer. “Our Aggie graduates are going to be at the tip of the spear, keeping an eye on the world so that decision makers can keep the world a safer place.”
DONATING TO THE CAUSE
It’s no surprise that Olson, a CIA legend, has morphed Texas A&M into the premier institution for intelligence studies. As individuals have begun to take notice, many are lending their support to the program.
Andrea and David Heath ’76 gave a $100,000 lead gift to establish The James M. and Meredith A. Olson Bush School Intelligence Studies Program Endowment, the program’s first endowed gift. The Texas A&M Foundation hopes to reach an endowment goal of $1 million this year with the support of additional donors.
“Jim Olson is the glue that created this program, and we’re proud to support it so that Texas A&M faculty can train these students,” said Andrea, who audited an Olson-taught class with David.
“I traveled to China a lot, and there are threats to the security of our country from China that the average American doesn’t have any idea about,” added David, a former executive with Nike. “Texas A&M has a great hand-picked faculty with the experience it takes to train the next generation of Aggies about protecting our country.”
Former Texas A&M President Dr. R. Bowen Loftin ’71 would like to see that faculty grow. To that end, he and his wife, Dr. Karin C. Loftin, have pledged a specific donation to the Bush School to support a fellowship for an intelligence studies professor. The donation is part of the couple’s overall $1 million pledge to support various initiatives at Texas A&M, including a graduate fellowship for a Bush School student in The Hagler Institute for Advanced Study, a Texas A&M umbrella organization that attracts world-class talent and research.
“Karin and I got to know former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, when I was president at Texas A&M,” he said. “We appreciated what he was trying to establish at the Bush School, and we know how important the intelligence studies program was to him as a former CIA director. We’d like to see that program continue to blossom and grow and become even more impactful.”
“We think it is important to keep our country, and those of our allies, safe from attack, both foreign and domestic,” added Karin, who is German born. “It’s important to recognize various cultures and work with them in a reasonable way. We know the intelligence field is part of this goal.”
Rex Grey ’67 agrees. Teaching students the intelligence skills to navigate an increasingly complex world is of paramount importance, he said. He and his wife Maria’s $100,000 gift recently helped secure needed support for short-term program operations. The Bush School is committed to a goal of increasing annual funding to relieve student waitlists, enhance course offerings and subject matter, support additional practitioners, provide high impact learning experiences, and more.
The Greys’ commitment is inspired by their connection with practitioner and guest lecturer, Matt Gill. “Matt and I have something in common: We both went to high school in Belgium,” Grey recalled. “For me, it was in the 60s, during the Cold War. My dad worked for a company that actually gave fake jobs to CIA agents as cover. He told me just enough to get me interested but never enough to get anyone in trouble!
“My wife Maria loved the way that Margaret Thatcher stood up to everybody,” he said of the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. “She thinks it’s important that our country at least knows what the bad guys are doing so we can counter them any way we can. That’s what Texas A&M’s intelligence studies program is about. Learning from practitioners who have ‘been there, done that’ is invaluable. They are teaching Aggies how to protect our country and our world. It is noble work.”