Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

A scandal erupted in October over covert CIA funding of ostensibly scholarly projects at Harvard University. This has confirmed long-held suspicions that at least some US academic research on the Middle East is only a cover for intelligence work.

The setting is Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. One of several such centers first established with government funding in the 1950s to provide policymakers with better information on the Middle East, CMES was by the late 1970s virtually moribund. In 1983, the Harvard administration appointed Professor Nadav Safran, a senior member of what Harvard rather pretentiously calls the Government Department, as the new director of the Center with a mandate to get it moving again and establish closer links with policymakers in Washington.

Safran was born in Egypt, emigrated to Israel and in the early 1950s left for the United States, where he received his university education and began his long climb to a tenured position at Harvard. In his long academic career Safran has moved from research on Egypt through several works on Israel and the US-Israeli relationship to his most recent interest, Saudi Arabia. That Safran had long-standing ties with Washington policymaking and even intelligence circles was widely accepted as fact in the field of Middle East studies.

By sheer coincidence, a letter published in Haaretz on September 27, 1985, and written, ironically enough, to defend Safran from a right-wing critic, described the beleaguered Harvard professor as having been “one of the heads of the [Israeli] security service” in the late 1940s.

Safran has never concealed his strong orientation toward policy-related issues and openly sought to transform CMES into a center for research on policy questions. Furthermore, links between intelligence agencies and leading academics are far from uncommon in US Middle East studies. But the character and magnitude of the present scandal surprised even the critics.

The controversy first became public on October 10, when The Crimson, Harvard’s daily student newspaper, revealed that Safran had solicited and received some $45,000 from the Central Intelligence Agency to organize a conference on Islam and politics scheduled for the following week. In the 1950s and 1960s, the US government had seen the main threat to US hegemony in the Middle East as coming from Arab nationalist and leftist forces; in recent years official nightmares have revolved around Islamic fundamentalism. So a conference of this sort, bringing together a broad spectrum of “experts” on this subject, was something the CIA was quite willing to sponsor from behind the scenes. Safran got into trouble not because he had taken CIA money — this is an accepted practice and, like many US universities, Harvard has extensive and long-standing links with intelligence agencies. But Safran had concealed the CIA connection, not only from the scholars invited to participate in the conference but from university officials as well. Harvard administrators were angry because Safran had violated university regulations by not processing the CIA money through university channels, and had not handed a large percentage over to Harvard as the rules require.

After a brief “investigation,” Dean of Arts and Sciences A. Michael Spence concluded that Safran had “erred” in handling the funds. No further official action was taken, although there were rumors that Safran had agreed to share the CIA money with Harvard. The conference was held as scheduled on October 15-16. But because the CIA funding had now become public knowledge, a majority of those invited — including virtually all of the Middle Easterners (except the Israelis) and most American scholars as well — refused to attend. Many who withdrew expressed outrage that Safran had kept the CIA funding a secret, stating that a CIA connection could jeopardize their careers or even their lives. Those who stayed on and participated in the rump conference were for the most part already notorious for their right-wing views, their advocacy of a hard-line US policy in the region, their strong support for Israel and their hostility to Islam. The CIA cannot have gotten very much for its $45,000, and the circumstances surrounding the conference only served to make even conservative Middle East scholars more wary of too close a relationship with the intelligence apparatus.

The scandal revived when it was revealed that Safran had also secretly received some $107,000 from the CIA for his just-published book, Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security. Safran’s contract with the CIA prohibited him from mentioning this funding in the book’s acknowledgements (although the Rockefeller Foundation and the Rand Corporation were duly thanked) and the CIA also had the right to review and censor the book before publication. The secret funding and the prior censorship clause angered Harvard officials, who felt that Safran had violated Harvard University rules providing for public disclosure of funding sources and prohibiting outside censorship of supposedly scholarly publications. The fact that Harvard University Press had published the book only heightened official chagrin.

Shortly after the scandal broke, three of the six members of the Center for Middle East Studies executive committee wrote to Dean Spence calling for Safran’s resignation. Like the Harvard administration, these senior faculty did not object to the CIA connection but only to what they claimed was Safran’s failure to involve them in the decision to accept CIA funding. It was in order to make it clear that CIA funding was in fact the central issue that seven junior faculty members and research fellows at the Center released a statement of their own on October 17 which explicitly rejected any CIA involvement in Middle East studies as a matter of principle. This is an issue which Harvard would rather not face.

Dean Spence is now deciding whether Safran will continue to serve as CMES director. Rumor has it that Harvard officials are being told by a broad spectrum of academics, corporate officials and even government officials involved with the Middle East that the university must act decisively to clear the Center’s name of any CIA taint. Many people at Harvard agree, including many of the faculty and research fellows associated with CMES who have consistently opposed any CIA connection and disagree with the policy orientation Safran has imposed on the Center during his brief tenure. Apart from the issue of principle involved — that academic research should be entirely separate from intelligence gathering — they and their students insist that the administration remove Safran and explicitly prohibit any intelligence connection. Otherwise, they worry, institutions and individuals in the Middle East will be even more suspicious than they already are of researchers coming from Harvard or from any US university, however free of an intelligence link they are in fact.

It is not yet clear whether Harvard will remove Safran or find some way to sweep the scandal and the very important issues it raises under the rug. Nadav Safran has long had a reputation in Middle Eastern studies as an extremely ambitious, abrasive and unscrupulous character who identifies with Washington’s determination to maintain US hegemony in the region. The scandal has already destroyed whatever scholarly credibility he may once have had. He certainly bungled the assignment Harvard gave him to resurrect the Center, and the scandal has damaged the CIA’s campaign to gain respectability and enhance its presence in academia.

James Riggins

How to cite this article:

"Harvard and the CIA," Middle East Report 136/137 (October-December 1985).