welcomes as our guest 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner for his Wall Street Journal series on admissions preferences at elite colleges which became the basis for his bestselling book, The Price of Admission, Daniel Golden.

Today, Dan will be telling us a little about himself and his most recent tome, Spy Schools: How The CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America's Universities.

Norm: Good day Dan and thanks for participating in our interview.

How did you get started in journalism and what keeps you going?

Dan: My parents were college professors, but as a young man choosing a career path I felt that academia was too secluded. I wanted to see close-up how the world worked, and to write and travel. So journalism seemed like a perfect fit. What keeps me going: the thrill of digging up something unknown and fascinating, and the pleasure and challenge of writing.

Norm: What has been your greatest challenge (professionally) that you’ve overcome in getting to where you’re at today?

Dan: I believe in the axiom that the journalist’s mission is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. But afflicting the comfortable -- especially if they're rich and powerful -- can be professionally risky. So I have to be doubly careful that everything I write is accurate and fair. 

Norm: How did you become involved with the subject or theme of Spy Schools: How The CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America's Universities, what were your goals and intentions in this book, how well do you feel you achieved them and what do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish your book?

Dan: Spy Schools grew out of an article I wrote for Bloomberg News about a University of South Florida professor named Dajin Peng, who was born and bred in China but is a US citizen.

At USF, he was the director of its Confucius Institute. China staffs and funds hundreds of these institutes of language and culture on campuses worldwide, and the FBI and other Western intelligence agencies regard them as havens for spies.

They suspected Peng was spying for China, and wanted to turn him into a double agent. When he got in trouble at USF for various transgressions, from expense-account finagling to having “a large cache of sexually-related images with disturbing thematic content” on his computer, an FBI agent went to Peng and basically gave him a choice – lose your tenured professorship and go to prison for your financial wrongdoing, or keep your position and spy on China and the Confucius Institutes for us.

The FBI even asked USF to establish a branch in China as a base for Peng’s spying. I thought the Peng story was unique, but insiders told me that it wasn't especially unusual. That made me realize I had stumbled onto a book-sized topic: how globalization has turned universities into a front line for espionage.

My goal in this book was to reveal the hidden culture of spy vs. spy at US universities, and its implications for national security and democratic values. Hardly anyone has written about this topic, perhaps because it falls between two journalistic beats (national security and higher education), and because it's not easy to find out about covert intelligence activities.

My hope was that through fresh, detailed reporting, and lively writing, I would vividly portray this world, so that my book would be both definitive and fun to read, like a spy novel but factual.  Whether I succeeded is for the reader to judge.  

I hope readers will enjoy and learn from the book, and be more alert to sub-currents of espionage in universities, study-abroad programs, academic conferences, and the like. 

Norm: What was the time-line between the time you decided to write your book and publication? What were the major events along the way?

Dan: I began working on the Peng article in the spring of 2014. It was published in February 2015. Then I received a book contract from Holt, and took a year's leave of absence from Bloomberg to work on it from September 2015 to September 2016. Then came revising, polishing, copy editing, and finally publication in October 2017.

Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing your book and did you learn anything from writing our book and what was it?

Dan: The most difficult (and rewarding) part was confirming the tips I got. For example, a source told me that CIA officers were enrolled undercover in the mid-career program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. To confirm this, I spent long hours in the Kennedy School library poring over the program’s rosters for the past 30 years, looking for participants who described themselves as State Department foreign service officers – a typical CIA cover. Then I checked those names on the Internet, in obituaries, and with my intelligence contacts. And in some cases, I simply contacted the people and asked if they had been in the CIA.

Sure enough, I found at least a dozen CIA officers who had attended the mid-career program under false backgrounds, without their classmates (mostly foreigners who would be attractive CIA recruits) or professors knowing their secret. Several of them spoke candidly with me about what it was like to be undercover at Harvard.

I learned from this book that, with some sensitive sources, I likely only had one chance at an interview. After we parted, or they hung up the phone, they often had second thoughts about cooperating with me. So I had to make sure I asked every pertinent question the first time around.

Norm: How much research did you devote to writing your book and where did you get your information or ideas for the book? As a follow up, can you share some stories about people you met while researching this book?

Dan: I did in-depth research – both interviews and documents. Public records requests were especially helpful. I sent requests to a dozen public universities, asking for their communications with the CIA and FBI. Several responses included the agendas of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, a forum where the FBI and CIA brief university presidents about intelligence activities related to academia. From one such agenda I learned about the Chinese graduate student who poached Pentagon-funded invisibility research at Duke University—an episode that became the first chapter of my book.

I met a lot of interesting people who were incredibly candid in sharing their experiences – like the professor at an elite university who told me about his years as a double agent (pretending to be a Russian spy while actually helping the FBI); or the former undercover intelligence officers who shared their strategies and pick-up lines for recruiting scientists at academic conferences.

Norm: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing the book?

Dan: Probably the bizarre partnership between Marietta College, a tiny liberal arts school in Ohio, and the University of International Relations in Beijing, which is overseen and partly funded by China’s intelligence service and trains many of China’s spies. And the mysterious Marietta professor—the son of a Chinese cabinet minister under Mao, but also a US government informant – who set up this partnership. The whole Marietta-UIR relationship, and how Marietta administrators turned a blind eye to UIR’s ties to Chinese intelligence, still boggles my mind.

Norm: It is said that writers should write what they know. Were there any elements of the book that forced you to step out of your comfort zone, and if so, how did you approach this part of the writing?

Dan: I grew up in and around universities, both public and private, and have long covered higher education as a journalist, so I’m familiar with that world. But I don’t have any spies in my family tree, and have rarely written about national security. So intelligence agencies were outside my comfort zone. I compensated by reading widely about them, interviewing many former intelligence officers, and consulting experts such as I.C. Smith and Nigel West to make sure that I got the tradecraft and the jargon right. I felt vindicated when John Le Carre, who knows a thing or two about espionage, praised my book as “timely and shocking.”

Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and Spy Schools?


Norm: What is next for Daniel Golden?

Dan: I’m currently working as a senior editor at ProPublica, the non-profit investigative newsroom, and looking for another book idea.

Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?

Dan: If I give you $1 million, will you agree not to write this book and reveal all these secrets? (I probably wouldn’t agree, but it would be fun to be asked.)

Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors