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Ex-CIA analyst brings real-world experience to politics classroom

January 16th, 2011 Posted in Arts and Life

By Jakob Asplund

LOGAN—Students who enroll in Jeannie L. Johnson’s political science classes often find they get more than they expected.

As a lecturer at Utah State, Johnson teaches a wide variety of classes, including university General Education offerings such as USU 1340—Social Systems and Issues, as well as U.S. government and politics, and more specialized topics like Balkan politics and strategic culture.

It is Johnson’s previous work, however, that often makes her most interesting to her students. As a former CIA analyst, and co-editor of Strategic Culture and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Johnson has real-world, hands-on insight into the topics she teaches.

At the CIA, where she worked as intelligence officer, Johnson made both intelligence and academic contributions to the intelligence community.

Anna Harris, one of Johnson´s students and an international studies major, says Johnson brings a lot of anecdotes into her lectures to give students ways to apply the theories they study into real situations.

“She says openly that she will grade papers as if students are submitting them to the CIA,” Harris said. “I know some students complain about this, but it gives sort of real-life concept to what she teaches.”

Johnson said her job at the CIA consisted of preparing memos based on clandestine and official data for the president of the United States and secretary of Defense.

“We were required to convey complex ideas in just a few sentences,” Johnson said. “Sometimes we needed to capture several pages of information in just a few words.”

Johnson said she and her CIA colleagues also had to be painstakingly careful when writing for the president.

“A lot of work goes into the wording,” she said. “We have to be extremely careful of how we present information so that no confusion exists when it is received on the other end.”

Through Johnson’s connections with the intelligence community, guest speakers from the CIA come to USU to talk about their work in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, to inform students as well as to talk to students who might join the CIA.

“The CIA has to do really exhaustive background checks, so it takes two years for them to hire people,” Harris said. “Juniors are the best to interview.”

The way Johnson ended up working for the CIA was almost as explosive as the position she had once she got there. As she was writing her master’s thesis in 1995, Johnson says her thesis committee was uncomfortable with her subject matter.

The topic of her thesis was labor mobility in the new European Union. Her conclusion was that political leaders didn’t intend labor mobility to become an economic reality, but rather to be used as a propaganda tool. Her research included people in high positions making comments like, “They are not actually going to move anyway,” when talking about the probability of labor mobility across Europe.

Johnson says it was her stubbornness that drew the attention of a CIA officer in residence.

She came under pressure about her conclusions, but instead of caving in, she says she stood by her work, which impressed Larry Boothe, a former CIA officer who was then a visiting political science professor at USU.

Johnson says she had no interest in the CIA, which she perceived as being about spies and covert agents running around carrying out secret missions. But after Boothe invited CIA Assistant Director James Simon to a lecture Johnson attended, she changed her mind.

“When I found out there was this whole other side to it, involving analyzing data, I got interested,” she said.

Boothe helped recruit her.

“He basically hand-carried my résumé,” Johnson said. “With vocal recommendations you could say I received favorable treatment, which helped me get in.”

Working for an organization like the CIA did mean handling delicate data. At the time, Johnson did not have children, and she says her husband, Steve, is an artist who doesn’t care about politics, so bringing her work home was never an issue.

“He was perfectly happy that I couldn’t talk about work at home,” Johnson said about her husband.

Political science sophomore Karapet Muradyan likes Johnson’s teaching methods and style.

“Even though the course is tough, she helps the student to get the best from the class,” Muradyan said. “Through her lectures and discussions it makes the class material easier for students to understand.”

Harris said it is not uncommon for students to drop Johnson’s classes after the first week.

“She covers everything so in-depth that everybody has a panic attack before the midterms,” Harris said. “But once you know the concepts they carry over to many of the other classes in the program.”

In 1999, as war broke out in Serbia over Kosovo, the CIA sent Johnson to Croatia to assist the State Department.

“Whenever we have military engagement abroad, all institutions attempt to help staff the relevant embassy because there is so much work to do,” she said. “You are basically on loan to the State Department from your home office.”

Johnson said it was difficult and sometimes even painful work, involving government procedures and policies not always suitable in other countries and cultures.

“As an intelligence officer you were not supposed to prescribe policy,” she said. “But when you work for the State Department your job can be to prescribe policy.”

During the Serbian conflict, CIA analysts—though not Johnson—predicted that the fighting would last no longer than three days. Johnson said the war lasted 72 days.

Though difficult at times, she said she enjoyed the job, which was more action-oriented than what she was used to when working as an analyst. Johnson says what she saw during her time in the Balkans, such as how the Serbs acted throughout the NATO bombing campaign, made her think about what later came to become groundwork for her book.

U.S. observers and participants became increasingly frustrated during this extended operation, she said. As the bombing campaign continued, Johnson says State Department personnel were baffled by Serbian reaction.

She witnessed how Serbians chose not to let the situation hinder them from running the Belgrade Marathon and, in fact, used it as an opportunity to make a statement about the conflict.

“We thought to ourselves, ‘Who are these Serbs?’” Johnson said. “We had a bombing campaign for 72 days [and] they are running a marathon, wearing target signs on their heads.”

When Johnson returned to Utah, she made it her mission to answer that question. She turned her attention from how economic or political forces come into play in strategic analysis, and focused on cultural variables. She was contracted by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which consolidates a variety of Defense Department functions to deal more effectively with threats posed by nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

Her findings helped her in writing her book on Strategic Culture, with Kerry M. Kartchner and Jeffrey A. Larsen. The book focuses on how culture is a strategic analytical tool to help understand what motivates people’s behavior, values and accepted norms.

Johnson completed her master’s degree at USU in 1995 and, after her CIA career, her experiences in Croatia, and a quick trip to England—where she found people were “shocked” at how much information CIA shares publicly—she returned to USU to bring her experience to the classroom, to help students become more aware of “the bigger picture.”

And she does keep her students’ attention.

Harris said every time international studies students talk about classes Johnson always seems to be mentioned. She said all of them want to be like her when they grow up.


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  1. 4 Responses to “Ex-CIA analyst brings real-world experience to politics classroom”

  2. By Eddy on Jan 16, 2011

    Umm, “pretty, slim & blonde” have something to do with her job?
    Nice article. The three words above need re-thinking. Or, as Scott Simon said the other day….. Just saying.

  3. By Eddy on Jan 16, 2011

    Umm, \"pretty, slim & blonde\" have something to do with her job?
    Nice article. The three words above need re-thinking. Or, as Scott Simon said the other day….. Just saying.

  4. By Joe Dougherty on Jan 18, 2011

    I always appreciated Jeannie’s candor, anecdotes and her lecturing style. Thanks for profiling her. She’s a great addition to USU. Nice of you to recognize that.

  5. By Joe Dougherty on Jan 18, 2011

    I always appreciated Jeannie\’s candor, anecdotes and her lecturing style. Thanks for profiling her. She\’s a great addition to USU. Nice of you to recognize that.

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