January 09, 2009 | Myrna Anderson

A fact-finding session began the opening class of the interim “Spies, Lies and National Security.” Professor Bill Stevenson, the mastermind of the class, was training his students to gather information. He was teaching them, in fact, to be spies.

Pairs of students take their turns at the front of the classroom, and facts begin to emerge:

“He has a twin brother.”
“She lives in Eastown.”
“He was born on May 3rd.”
“She was born on October 10th.”
“He has a dog named Scout.”
“She goes by ‘Lisa.’”
“She has a brother, Aaron, who plays hockey.”
“He’s from Kalamazoo, Michigan—it’s really obvious, looking at him.”

Occasionally, the facts go a bit askew:

“This is Will—not so sure of the last...”
“Got the name wrong…,” says “Will.”
“I’m sorry.”
“This is Paul.”
“I’m a bit guarded,” admits Paul.

Spy training

The fact session began as a fact-finding session in the opening class of the interim “Spies, Lies and National Security.” Political science professor Bill Stevenson, the mastermind of the class, was training the students during the three-week January class to gather information. He was teaching them, in fact, to be spies.

Yet, while the first exercise in the class involved learning the truth, the actual profession of espionage, said Stevenson, deals in deception: “In effect, what a government does when it creates a spy agency… is create a whole class of liars,” he announced.

The untruth in intelligence

The untruth involved in information-gathering has multiple moral facets, Stevenson said: “How do you supervise someone who’s trained to lie? How do you know he’s telling you the truth? There’s also an issue of entrapment.” And a career spent lying, he added, will ultimately have an impact on the liar: “What does it do to the person who gets very accomplished at lying?” he asked.

The second exercise in the Wednesday class explored that thesis. The students were divided into teams to discuss the moral implications of some realistic intelligence-gathering scenarios: Was it morally defensible for the CIA to plant a Christian agent pretending to be a missionary in China? Was it okay for the agency to influence an election in Venezuela to overthrow a dictator accused of terrorism, drug trafficking and human rights violations? Was it acceptable for an agent to seduce a target to get information?

“My first thesis is to get them thinking of why those issues are more complex than they might think,” Stevenson said. 

Stevenson first explored those moral questions while working for the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation following graduate school. There he made the acquaintance of drug investigators, “people who were good at pretending to be drug dealers, practiced in the art of deception, good liars,” he said. “That got me to thinking not only, what are the moral issues of something like that, but what are the administrative issues?”

Spy books and spy flicks

Students will investigate the moral issues of espionage through the reading list for the interim: The Book of Spies, an anthology of literary espionage by Alan Furst; The Great Game: the Myths and Realities of Espionage by Frederick P. Hitz, Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying by James M. Olson and Spy ( an account of U.S. double-agent Robert Hanssen) by David Wise.

The class will round out their education in espionage through film: The Counterfeit Traitor, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Lives of Others, Three Days of the Condor, Donnie Brasco and the television show The Company. “My wife and I have been watching spy films all summer,” he said about putting together his movie list. “I have been really energized by doing this.”

Glamour and substance

The cinematic image of spy-dom has a lot of appeal, said Corey Velgersdyk, a junior majoring in international relations and Chinese, “You see spy films, and that always makes for a pretty good film,” he said, while admitting, “I doubt it’s as glamorous at it seems.” The moral questions posed by the class are what intrigued Velgersdyk, however: “It’s hard, I guess, to match up a profession where you live a lie with the Christian faith, especially when one of the 10 Commandments is “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

Lubie Hubers, a junior majoring in international relations also finds the moral element of the class compelling. She is particularly interested in how intelligence issues play out on the international stage. Hubers did acknowledge, however, that the aura surrounding espionage has a certain appeal: “I think it appeals to everyone’s childhood dreams,” she confessed. “When you pretend to be a spy as a kid, in reality, you wish that you could do that.”

More on Interim

Read about other interim courses:

Handling Disaster

Representing the devil

What’s for Dinner?

Spies, Lies and National Security

See a list of interim blogs.

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