Should the CIA have a Recruitment Booth at International Studies Association Conventions?

“Imagine this is your first high school reunion and nonchalantly you say ‘I work for the CIA’ and all eyes turn toward you”.

This was written on a CIA promotional leaflet distributed at an International Studies Association (ISA) convention a few years ago. Hilarious, for sure, but also disturbing.

How come an agency that systematically tortures people has been able to have a recruitment booth at the world’s largest academic gathering of international studies? I started wondering about this when packing to cross the ocean for yet another ISA annual meeting. I used to be involved in occasional debates around the participation of the CIA at earlier ISA meetings. I found it sad that the agency should be visibly present in what was the most important academic association for me. I had participated in the Governing Council of the ISA, chaired its International Political Economy section and tried to serve in some other ways to make it a more welcoming association. One of my many concerns about the CIA presence was that it could make the efforts to have more participation by international scholars more difficult.

As I was over many years visiting the annual meetings from Latin America, I had particular concerns about the implications of the CIA presence for our colleagues from the global south. Sharing the same institutional space with the CIA can be not only morally uncool but also potentially dangerous. There are various corners of the world where for a scholar to be perceived as someone associated with the CIA is risky. Blindness to these risks is, to put it gently, parochial.

The term “international” in the name of the ISA has a peculiar ambiguity. It is sometimes interpreted to imply that it is an international association, as in “International Political Science Association”. It surely has become more international in terms of membership, so this interpretation is not totally mistaken, even if partially misleading. In many ways, it also remains a national association of the United States for the study of international relations. In this sense it is more comparable to the American Political Science Association. Whatever the exact interpretation of that ambiguity, I would argue that giving the CIA a visible space in the ISA meetings is counterproductive for the international pretensions of the association.

In the debates we had some years ago, there were colleagues who defended the CIA participation with the argument of academic freedom. Sometimes I felt that in the debates, on both sides, there was some confusion between different modes of participation. My concern was not so much on whether there might be people working for the CIA in a panel or roundtable of the meeting. I felt that despite my discomfort, the academic freedom argument could be relevant in that regard. To the extent we accepted not only academic scholars but also non-academic practitioners to present papers, banning panelists from certain organizations could arguably be complicated. My main reason for concern, however, was the CIA promotional booth in the exhibit hall distributing recruitment material. I did not see how that could be justified by similar arguments of academic freedom.

To me, providing recruitment space for an organization that tortures people seemed wrong a few years ago. Now that the systematic nature of the torture has been more widely documented than before, also by a US Senate Intelligence Committee report, I would imagine that the indignity caused by the CIA presence might be felt more widely. Perhaps times have changed, especially as I could not find the name of the CIA in the next annual meeting materials available through the website. Perhaps I did not know where to search, so I contacted the ISA headquarters. Will the CIA be present in the next annual meeting to be held in New Orleans?

The e-mail response I received from the ISA headquarters on February 12, 2015 was: “From time to time, the CIA does exhibit with ISA and are going to be represented in New Orleans. ISA does not have any policy that would prohibit them from participating at ISA. We will also have exhibits from military institutions and other government agencies.”

Writing this, I have no exact information on what kind of representation the CIA will have in the New Orleans convention. The e-mail message suggests that there might a similar promotional booth as before. We will soon find out. In any case, the questions about the CIA presence in our academic association will remain relevant also beyond New Orleans.

Whether the CIA tortures is no longer an issue. The real question is more clearly whether we want to give an agency that practices torture a visible space for self-promotion in our academic association.

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