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Educators ponder wisdom of accepting CIA-backed foreign study scholarships


WASHINGTON -- Like the Ugly Duckling shunned by its peers, the Central Intelligence Agency has set the country's leading educators atwitter by its involvement in a Senate scholarship plan to encourage American students to study foreign languages and cultures.

In this case, though, the spy agency is really a goose that lays golden eggs, for without its inclusion, the educators say that they wouldn't stand a chance of getting the $180 million now being offered to revitalize the United States' international competence in commercial, academic, diplomatic and intelligence fields.

The Senate approved the project Thursday as the National Security Education Bill and sent it to a congressional joint committee that is expected to usher it through for presidential signature.

Organizations representing most of the country's 4,000 colleges and universities, which would be expected to award and administer the grants, responded cautiously when Sen. David L. Boren, D-Okla., chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, first outlined the proposal in July.

Most said last week, however, that they would participate in the program despite their distaste for its clandestine element.

"None of us would willingly choose to have the CIA in on this, but we feel the initiative is just too important to let go," said Norman Peterson, executive secretary of the Liaison Group for International Exchange, which represents 24 of the nation's largest university associations and higher education groups.

What worries them is that the Office of Management and Budget insists that the CIA and Department of Defense control the money for the scholarships because it would come entirely from classified segments of the intelligence community's multibillion-dollar budget.

The fund would also be administered from the Defense Intelligence College at Washington's Fort McNair -- a compromise arrangement that seems to have won the approval of most of the educators, who respect the college's reputation for independent work.

Sensitive to the educational community's needs, however, Mr. Boren arranged for the money to be placed in a trust, and for the secretaries of state, education and commerce, as well as the director of the U.S. Information Agency, to join the director of central intelligence and the secretary of defense on the board of trustees.

"That would give the CIA only a one-sixth share in the program," said the senator, who, as a former Rhodes scholar, says he wants his brainchild to have as broad an educational appeal as possible.

"Obviously, it would defeat the purpose if this seemed to be a CIA program: Every kid sent overseas would be regarded as a spy, and the colleges and universities wouldn't take the money."

Even so, most educational groups said they remained concerned about the CIA's involvement because of its checkered history both at home and abroad. Some said they feared that the agency's shadowy role in Third World conflicts, coups and destabilization would compromise the program's credibility and might even undermine the security of U.S. students and study programs abroad.

"This is certainly not a non-issue," said John Vaughn of the Association of American Universities. But he said it was "more an issue of perception than substance."

The Pentagon, he noted, had long been accepted as a primary sponsor of research in a wide variety of fields, not all with military applications. "But the CIA doesn't have that same tradition," he said. "It's seen to be singular in purpose, and insidious."

That perception seemed strong enough last week to have scared off at least one group -- the New York-based Council on International Educational Exchange. The council, the country's oldest foreign studies group, said it would not participate if the CIA remained in the program.

The group's assistant executive director, Edith Katz, stressed that the council had no quarrel with the program, which it felt was fundamentally sound -- even vital -- for the United States' future role in world affairs. It was rather a question of how deep the CIA and military involvement would go.

"The underlying issue is not whether it is bad to have CIA involvement as such," said Benjamin Milk, spokesman for the Association of International Educators, "but the problem is whether it could jeopardize the scholarship itself or individuals in the program."

On the other hand, he said, "it says something about how far this country has come, that what the CIA once may have done secretly it is now doing in the open."

The AAU's Mr. Vaughn said that most Liaison Group members expected "a sufficient overlapping of the needs of the academic community and the defense-intelligence community to serve the interests of both" without compromising either.

But "the day is still a long way off when someone can say: 'Hey, I got a CIA grant,' " he said jokingly.

The involvement of private educational institutions was crucial to the project, Mr. Vaughn said. They provided academic expertise with which to manage and judge the worth of individual study programs and also served as a "buffer" between recipients and the primary donor of the grant. The project could survive only if this "buffer" clearly separated the intelligence community from an autonomous academic community, he said.

Under Mr. Boren's bill, program funds would be split into three groupings: scholarships for undergraduate study abroad, grants to universities to improve foreign studies and fellowships for graduate students.

Awards in the first two groupings would be granted with no strings attached; the graduate fellowships would be given in return for one to three years of government service, not necessarily in intelligence.

Most of the money -- $145 million -- would be invested in a trust to provide continuing finance for the annual grants. These, totaling about $35 million, would make the program one of the richest after the Fulbright scholarship, which currently operates on about $98 million a year.

Mr. Boren said that the aim was to develop a pool of experts who would be knowledgeable about all countries, not just the dissolving Soviet Union and its republics, and who would enhance the ranks of U.S. foreign policy-makers, diplomats and commercial and trade groups, as well as the intelligence community.

He said that U.S. funding of international language and area studies had dropped to less than one-tenth of what it was 30 years ago. At the same time, the diversity of knowledge had narrowed dramatically: Of the 62,000 Americans studying abroad each year, three-quarters were concentrated in only five West European countries.

Few had any interest in the Third World, which, from an intelligence point of view, was becoming increasingly important to the United States, he said.

During the Cold War, "the world came to us and spoke our language. That era is over," Mr. Boren said.

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