Professor Peter Clement, who joined the faculty of the School of International and Public Affairs this semester, enjoys watching “Homeland,” but doesn’t agree with the show’s portrayal of the Central Intelligence Agency. And he has a particularly informed opinion—he worked at the CIA for more than three decades.
Clement, who held many positions within the agency—including an eight-year stint as the deputy director for Intelligence for Analytic Programs—said he thinks that Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison probably couldn’t exist in real life.
“She’s an amalgam of everything we do, which is impossible, physically, because (A) you can never sleep, and (B) very different skill sets are required for each position,” he said in an interview last week.
Clement is on a two-year hiatus from the CIA as part of the agency’s Officer in Residence program, which enables CIA officers to teach courses in foreign affairs at American universities. The goal of this program is to educate students about what the CIA does.
This semester, Clement is teaching a seminar on the history of U.S. intelligence and its role in foreign policy decision-making. He is also teaching a seminar with Robert Jervis, a professor of internal affairs, on how internal states communicate with each other.
Clement said that his previous collaborations with Jervis and his respect for SIPA are two major factors that drew him to Columbia.
This isn’t Clement’s first stint in academia. During his early years with the CIA as an analyst specializing in Russian affairs, he taught courses on Russian history and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, and at the University of Virginia.
“I would try to teach one course a semester in part because I enjoy teaching and it gave me a chance to pursue that interest outside my daily work activity,” Clement said. “But after I became a manager and a senior manager, I had no time to deal with anything like that, so I had a little bit of a hiatus from teaching for the past 20 years.”
Clement added that, while they may seem very different, he does find parallels between the CIA and the University.
“It’s intellectually stimulating,” he said. “You debate facts and ideas and concepts and try to assess what’s going on in the world.”
Another change that Clement encountered as a result of switching from the writing and analysis-intensive role into more review-based managerial positions was a change in the content to which he was exposed.
Describing himself as “a mile wide and an inch deep,” he said, “I know a little bit about a lot of issues, but I’m not the deep, deep expert that I used to be—which is a trade off, but I’ve found it really intellectually stimulating to learn a lot more about other countries and other issues.” In fact, he said that the most exciting times for him at the agency included not only the collapse of the Soviet Union, reflecting his area of expertise, but also the recent Arab Spring.
“You have a whole range of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes being challenged and you see how differently leaders have reacted to that—that’s been absolutely fascinating,” he said. “It’s been highlighted to me why you need to be flexible in your thinking, because [it has shown that] nothing is unthinkable.”
Clement’s involvement with the Arab Spring at the Directorate of Intelligence—the branch of the agency that analyzes data on foreign affairs to help policy makers make informed decisions—and his past expertise in Russian affairs captured the interest of the Columbia International Relations Council and Association. CIRCA has chosen Clement to speak at its Oct. 16 panel on Syria.
Zunaira Mubasher, CC ’16 and vice president of academic affairs for CIRCA, referred to Clement as “one of the most knowledgeable people, I would say, in the U.S. government in Russia and the Middle East at this time.”
“He’s going to give us an interesting perspective on what’s happening on the ground—almost unbiased in some ways, just because the CIA’s job itself is not to give opinions but to give reports,” Mubasher said.
Students in Clement’s seminar on the history of U.S. intelligence said that Clement’s experience brings an interesting dynamic to classroom discussions.
“Sometimes you read the information in the book and it can almost seem like fiction, even a joke, as if someone is writing for personal aggrandizement, or as if someone just wants to write about the FBA or the CIA,” Kelechi Mbiamnozie, SIPA ’14, said. “But having someone in the field actually tell you how it is is so much more rewarding.”
“He’s not James Bond,” Mbiamnozie added. “He addresses our questions in a very understandable way.”
Stephanie Freundel, SIPA ’14, said that she never thought she’d get the opportunity to engage with someone with a background in the CIA, even after working for the government in the customs and border patrol agency.
“It’s really good that we are able to interact with professors like this,” Freundel said. “Having the access to somebody working in such an organization—I just believe would not have been encountered on a daily basis ever, even at my job.”
After Clement’s two years at SIPA are up, he plans to go back to the CIA and write an internal history of the Directorate of Intelligence.
But for now, Clement is enjoying his time at Columbia.
“I like university-level teaching because you know you can get into serious, substantive discussions with some smart students,” he said. “I’ve been very impressed with the students here at SIPA, and that makes it intellectually a lot of fun for me.”
Josephine McGowan contributed reporting.