- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) - After 31 years of chasing Soviet KGB secrets and jumping out of moving cars for the Central Intelligence Agency, James Olson made the move into academia. That led him to Texas A&M;’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.

In the summer of 1997, Olson was about to begin teaching at Marquette’s Les Aspin School of Government. A call from former CIA director George Tenet changed that.

Tenet had a request from former President George H.W. Bush, who served as CIA director from 1976 to 1977. Olson says Bush was always a “strong advocate” of intelligence, and wanted it to be taught at A&M;’s new school of government and public service that bore his name. Olson’s move to Marquette was two weeks away, but the idea of “helping build a program of intelligence and national security” was too appealing, he said.

“It was a big leap of faith to consider coming down to a program that wasn’t even formed yet,” Olson told The Eagle of Bryan-College Station (http://bit.ly/1vcEGUt). “But we liked the university. We had done some research and found that it had this great tradition of service and patriotism, honor, integrity - values that we thought would be consistent with where we had come from.

“Then we talk to President and Mrs. Bush, and that was the end, because Barbara Bush was insistent that we come here. So, we said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ And we told Marquette, ‘Sorry.’”

Olson committed to two years with A&M.; Offers came to work at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, or overseas. But he and his wife, Meredith, had grown fond of A&M; and College Station. Olson accepted a professorship at A&M; in 2000.

“Best decision we’ve made in our lives,” Olson said. “We love it here. How could we not be excited about a second career teaching the next generation of young men and women to come in behind us and do national security? And we’re doing it.”

Olson grew up in West Des Moines, Iowa, and graduated with a law degree from the University of Iowa in 1969. He served in the Navy and was planning to practice law in a small town after graduation. Though he wasn’t terribly familiar with the CIA, he was recruited to join, and he went through the screening process. He eventually accepted a position with the clandestine service, which covertly gathers information and secrets from other nations. Olson said he didn’t see himself being a spy for more than a couple of years and then returning to his original plan.

“Well, it didn’t work out that way,” Olson said. “I loved it from the beginning. I thought the work was rewarding, important work.”

Joining the CIA also introduced Olson to his future wife, Meredith, who was already working as an agent when he started.

“That really works out well, marrying somebody in the CIA, because she’s already cleared,” Olson said. “She knows what she’s getting into. You can talk to each other. She understands the sacrifices that will be ahead for you, the risks. You’re probably the same type of people in many ways, with the same value set, to even be there in the first place.”

The two worked in tandem undercover, focused on gathering intelligence on the Soviet KGB during the Cold War, but they also worked on digging up information on China, Cuba, North Korea and Iran.

Olson says his job “boiled down to chasing Russians.” He was looking for those with information who were willing to betray their country and pass on secrets in exchange for some sort of inducement. These inducements could range from money to health care to getting a family member to the United States.

“It’s manipulative,” Olson said. “It’s dishonest, because you’re befriending people for an ulterior purpose, but it’s the nature of our business. It’s the bread and butter of spying.”

An effective “cover” is everything to being an effective spy, Olson said. During his time in the field, he worked full-time at whatever his cover was at the time - a banker, journalist or diplomat to an embassy - all while spying on nights and weekends. The mundane nature of the day job showed Olson how much he enjoyed his CIA role.

“In my other job, I produced intelligence that went to the president’s desk or saved American lives or gave the United States a decisive edge in some international negotiation,” he said. “Oh, that charged me up.”

The CIA does not allow its officers to work on college campuses covertly, so to accept his professorship at A&M;, Olson had to “come out.” Olson said it was a difficult experience after living undercover for 31 years, admitting to family and friends “that you’ve been lying to them.” Olson said both he and his wife’s parents had the same reaction, independently - “Thank you for not telling us sooner,” and alleviating the worry of what was happening overseas.

Their children were shocked, and his son finally realized “why his dad was jumping out of cars all the time,” Olson said. They lost some friends, but most understood why they had to be secretive for so long.

“And then, you have all of the other consequences, because by coming out, you are in effect announcing to the entire world that you were in their countries, violating their laws,” Olson said. “You were stealing their secrets. You were subverting their citizens. You were tapping their phones. You were undermining their electoral processes - doing all the things that we do. They don’t like that.”

Several of Olson’s former students have gone on to careers with the CIA, FBI, the State Department and the Pentagon. Olson says building their cover starts before they ever leave school.

“We coach them on how, if there are people aware that they’re interested in the CIA, how to disabuse them of the notion that it ever went anywhere,” Olson said. “Their safety will depend on whether people will buy their cover or not. We are very, very scrupulous about building covers and preserving covers.”

The Bush School has become a prominent recruiting ground for government agencies, Olson says, because of the way it prepares its students with hands-on training and guidance from faculty who served in the field.

“Our students get the opportunity to understand what that’s like before they get there, and I don’t think there’s any other program in the country that takes students into the real world of intelligence the way our program does here,” Olson said.

Olson chairs the Bush School admissions committee. He looks for students that he calls “infected,” because they “have that bug to serve.”

“And if they don’t convince us that they are genuinely called to public service, then we’re generally going to go somewhere else,” he said. “… It makes it really inspiring for us faculty to be around these young people because they’re all here for the right reasons.

“Students who come to the Bush School, all graduate students, do not want to be academics. If we sense that they want to be academics, we screen them out, frankly, because we’re looking for people who see the Bush degree as a terminal for public service.”

Olson teaches courses in the areas in which he worked: intelligence, counter-intelligence, national security, counter-terrorism and international crisis management. His students say he uses his own anecdotes and has them role-play scenarios in class.

“Professor Olson is the whole reason that I came to the Bush School,” said Jeffrey Roszhart, whose focus at the school is diplomacy and intelligence. “I am on the edge of my seat every class period, and I just don’t want it to end. He gives us a wealth of information and helps us distinguish between Hollywood concepts of the CIA and what it is actually like. He has a great way of including us into his real life stories in a sense that we feel we are actually there and involved in the operation.”

Counter-intelligence, as in working to catch other countries’ spies, is Olson’s favorite. He tells his students it’s like playing eight-dimensional chess.

“I love catching spies,” Olson said. “It’s the most demanding. You’re matching wits with these very clever intelligence services. They’re trying to conceal the identity of the spies working for them. My job is to break through that, figure out who their spies are and arrest their spies.”

When Olson first visited the Bush School in 1997, he wore a hard hat. It was just a construction site then. He says he never imagined how quickly the school’s reputation would grow. The Bush School was ranked 33rd out of 180 graduate public policy programs in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, which Olson says is impressive considering the school’s youth.

“Our competitors - Georgetown, George Washington, Johns Hopkins, a few others - can’t believe how quickly the Bush School reached top-tier status,” Olson said. “They don’t like it, because all of those D.C. schools kind of had it themselves for all those years - graduate study in national security - and they’re really annoyed that there’s an upstart, down in Texas of all places, that is stealing their best applicants and has a better place and record than they have. They better get used to it, because we’re not going anywhere.

“We’re not that old in terms of graduate programs in international security studies, but we’re already recognized as being top tier. My organization, the CIA, considers this the premier program of its kind in the country, and they recruit very heavily down here.”

___

Information from: The Eagle, http://www.theeagle.com

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