Norway’s Russian spy scandal should be a warning to all universities

The writer is senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and advisory board member at Gallos Technologies

Until last month, not many people were aware of the political warfare programme at Norway’s Arctic University in the northern city of Tromsø. But then, officers at the Norwegian Police Security Service arrested one of the researchers, claiming he was a Russian spy.

There is a striking irony in the fact that Moscow may have successfully infiltrated the very programme that investigates so-called “greyzone” activity — subversive actions by hostile states that fall below the threshold of formal conflict. But this arrest should also serve as a warning for academics across the world, whose work across borders and collaborative instincts make them particularly vulnerable at a time of rising geopolitical tensions.

José Assis Giammaria, purportedly a Brazilian citizen who has a masters degree in strategic studies from the University of Calgary, had specifically requested to work on the greyzone programme. It is also likely that he was interested in Tromsø as a centre of research on the High North, an increasingly contested region on Russia’s doorstep where melting Arctic ice is opening new sea routes and allowing access to rare minerals.

Giammaria gained a position in much the same way academics usually find employment: he was recommended to Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv, professor of security studies who leads the greyzone programme, by colleagues in Canada. She scrutinised his references and his University of Calgary credentials, which all seemed entirely in order.

“He got a lot of praise when I checked references,” Gjørv told Norwegian media. “He expressed an interest in the security policy situation in the north”. She described him as a quiet and slightly shy man who did not share much information about himself. Now Giammaria is being held by Norwegian security services, who say he’s a Russian illegal — a spy operating under deep cover, rather than posing as a diplomat. The investigative network Bellingcat has already alleged that he is actually Colonel Mikhail Mikhushin of the GRU, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. He has denied all the accusations against him.

If fellow academics consider this a rude awakening, they would do well to take the threat seriously. “The academic world is suitable for espionage, both because of its cross-border collaboration and because it allows you to be legitimately interested in all sorts of things,” retired Major General Gunnar Karlson, a former chief of Sweden’s military intelligence agency, told me. “Espionage by illegals doesn’t happen extremely often because it’s an extremely expensive form of espionage. But it does occur.”

Academics are also at risk in the cyber sphere, where hackers working on behalf of China and Russia have been repeatedly called out for stealing intellectual property across a spectrum of targets ranging from military technology to Covid vaccine research.

Even though this subversion is extremely concerning, universities do not need to conduct national security screening of all their staff, Karlson says. Instead, he suggests it is better to protect the secrets themselves: in theory, even if an institution is infiltrated by a rogue researcher, they should not be able to access any sensitive material. For example, academics could introduce classification levels for sensitive material like the ones used by governments.

Professor Michael Clarke, a former director-general of London’s Royal United Services Institute defence and security think-tank, took exactly that approach. “We used to assume that there had to be special reasons if someone from North Korea wanted to come to Rusi as a fellow, but we made special arrangements,” he told me. “We welcomed them, but we didn’t trust them.”

Academic institutions that are active in defence and security will now have to become even more judicious in their hiring. “There’s always going to be a degree of risk, but we do have to be more careful scrutinising the people coming to work at our institutes,” Clarke said.

Indeed, the harm done by suspects such as Giammaria may not be limited to gathering sensitive information. Undercover intelligence officers are often most active in directing a network of agents, for which academia is a useful base. The Norwegian security services will now have to thoroughly investigate Giammaria’s activities beyond his work at Tromsø University.

In most cases, of course, academia will remain blessedly free of geopolitical subversion. But as Karlson advises, “the first rule is not to be naive”.



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