Students to present study to NSA

Kristopher A. Fortin

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They met in the basement of the Oviatt Library, room 316, sat around confidential documents and reported their findings to a faceless representative from the National Security Agency via web cam.

CSUN’s Intelligence Community meeting on Jan. 23 is what spy novels are made of. The meeting open to the public, RSVP required, didn’t allow any recording devices because the research discussed at the meeting may become the students’ first act of combating terrorism.

California State University, Long Beach, San Bernardino and Northridge were the contributing campuses in the service learning project, ‘The Transit Country Problem’ which looked at what it is about certain countries that make them more attractive to terrorist groups and transnational criminal organizations.

Whenever someone from the NSA spoke, the web cam discussion screen froze and a plain female voice, Amber, came from the speakers.

Known widely for their air of secrecy and controversial programs, such as their warrantless surveillance program, the ‘No Such Agency’s’ shroud of mystery lifted an inch when they asked three California State University Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence (IC-ACE) campuses to look into terrorist and criminal organization’s attraction to specific countries.

CSU IC-ACE recruits students that want to pursue a career in a government agency like the NSA, Federal Bureau of Investigations or Central Intelligence Agency. CSUN offers an undergraduate program.

CSUN students that participated in the study and the NSA did not reply to requests for comment in time for print. CSUN Intelligence community advisor and Associate Sociology Professor Dr. James David Ballard said that he counseled his students to not speak to the media because they may be potential federal agents and they need to ‘protect (themselves) … and their specific careers.’

The research results and methodology that CSUN and CSUSB students from the IC program did last fall was presented to the NSA and has received positive feedback, CSU-ACE Consortium Director Mark Clark said, so much that the NSA expressed interest in implementing in into their program.

‘I think it’s phenomenal,’ Clark said. ‘It might actually help them in ways like never before.’

NSA representatives have expressed satisfaction and interest in the students’ findings, Clark said, specifically the executive director of the Institute for Analysis.

The NSA posed a real life problem the agency is continuingly dealing with and asked graduate students from California State University, San Bernadino and undergraduate students from Northridge to formulate a solution, Ballard said.

CSUN and CSUSB were challenged by the NSA to answer the question: What makes some countries more attractive to terrorist and criminal organizations?

Each developed a methodology for collecting data. CSUSB’s two graduate classes and CSUN’s one undergraduate class, 27 students, made up the 70 to 80 students involved in the project.

The CSUN students looked at four proxies: drug trafficking, arms smuggling, human trafficking and government corruption.

Though the NSA gave positive comments about the students work, Ballard said, ‘The model . . . wouldn’t’ work in practice.’

Ballard linked the weakness of the CSUN student’s model to the proxy’s they chose to follow.

‘Proxy may not be as robust as we had liked,’ Ballard said.

CSUSB tracked countries plagued with Civil War, criminal groups home country, and the countries that fall within their target radius, such as neighboring countries.

CSUSB and CSUN instructors started exchanging information midway through the fall semester course and are almost finished with putting together a final collaborative report.

CSULB students aided CSUN students with mapping tasks.

The final report is still being finalized, Clark said, but the NSA have indicated they want to include the methodology and research the students produced into their own data analysis process.

‘It’s going to change how we look at the problem,’ Clark said. ‘(We’re) helping junior analysts. They want to use our method.’

During the students’ research, they discovered that a lot of the quantitative data they collected was unreliable, Clark said. There was no Census for some of the information, he added, and at times the data seemed made up.

‘There was no trust in those numbers,’ Clark said.

Even though the data was unreliable, Ballard said. ‘It wasn’t the endpoint, it was the idea of how to put together these proxies,’

The students also found an increase in arms dealing, Ballard said, where there was presence of peace keeping military forces.

‘Some United Nations security forces are selling weapons to locals,’ Ballard said. African nations, European nations and the Middle East were areas included in the research.

The students didn’t go through any controversial means like the ones the NSA has been involved in (i.e. data mining or warrantless wire-tapping). The foundation of the research came from electronic library sources such as the government publications link on the Oviatt Library Web site, domestic and foreign government Web sites, said Oviatt Library Accounting ‘amp; Receiving Supervisor Donna LaFollette, the students go-to library troubleshooter.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence awarded a multi-year, multi-million dollar grant in fall 2006 to start California State University IC-ACE.
Universities include CSU Bakersfield, Dominguez Hills, Fullerton, Long Beach, Northridge, San Bernardino and Cal Poly Pomona.