In order to tempt nuclear scientists from countries such as Iran or North Korea to defect, US spy agencies routinely send agents to academic conferences – or even host their own fake ones. By Daniel Golden
More than any other academic arena, conferences lend themselves to espionage. Assisted by globalisation, these social and intellectual rituals have become ubiquitous. Like stops on the world golf or tennis circuits, they sprout up wherever the climate is favourable, and draw a jet-setting crowd. What they lack in prize money, they make up for in prestige. Although researchers chat electronically all the time, virtual meetings are no substitute for getting together with peers, networking for jobs, checking out the latest gadgets and delivering papers that will later be published in volumes of conference proceedings. “The attraction of the conference circuit,” English novelist David Lodge wrote in Small World, his 1984 send-up of academic life, is that “it’s a way of converting work into play, combining professionalism with tourism, and all at someone else’s expense. Write a paper and see the world!”
The importance of a conference may be measured not just by the number of Nobel prize-winners or Oxford dons it attracts, but by the number of spies. US and foreign intelligence officers flock to conferences for the same reason that army recruiters concentrate on low-income neighbourhoods: they make the best hunting grounds. While a university campus might have only one or two professors of interest to an intelligence service, the right conference – on drone technology, perhaps, or Isis – could have dozens.
“Every intelligence service in the world works conferences, sponsors conferences, and looks for ways to get people to conferences,” said one former CIA operative.
“Recruitment is a long process of seduction,” says Mark Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and former special advisor to the British foreign office. “The first stage is to arrange to be at the same workshop as a target. Even if you just exchange banalities, the next time you can say, ‘Did I see you in Istanbul?’”