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Korbel grad Jim Bruce recalls his CIA days

“It was an ideal mix for me,” Jim Bruce says of his DU years. “I don’t know how I could have done better than I did.” Photo courtesy of Jim Bruce

Before you can visit Jim Bruce at his office, you have to answer what may seem an odd question: “Will classified material be discussed?”

Bruce is a political scientist with the RAND Corp., a wide-ranging contractor with many clients, including intelligence agencies. His focus — as it was during his 24 years as a CIA analyst — is researching intelligence collection, analysis and counterinsurgency. So it’s not surprising that Bruce’s office in a nondescript suburban Washington, D.C., building is on a highly secure floor. Doors have entry card scanners, safe-like combination locks and, in at least one case, a sign announcing a military operations simulation facility. Still, the question on the reception area sign-in sheet gives first-time visitors pause.

Bruce’s long career discussing classified material has its origins in DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. That’s where Bruce earned his PhD in international relations and a unique perspective on straddling the worlds of government and academe.

While at DU from 1969–72, Bruce studied with the late Korbel himself, a former Czechoslovakian diplomat who was father to one future secretary of state, Madeline Albright, and mentor to another, Condoleezza Rice. To Bruce, even Korbel’s informal interactions seemed marked by a hint of statecraft.

“He was the quintessential scholar-diplomat,” Bruce recalls.

Among Bruce’s other strong influences at DU were professors David Bayley, who clarified epistemology, and John McCamant, who showed the way to study analytical frameworks.

“It was an ideal mix for me,” Bruce says of his DU years. “I don’t know how I could have done better than I did.”

After a two-year stint as a professor at Kent State, Bruce went on to teach courses on the USSR, international relations and national security policy at Marshall University in West Virginia and the National War College in Washington, D.C. It was at the war college in 1982 — during the depths of the Cold War — that life changed drastically. The CIA approached Bruce, a Soviet expert, and offered him an analyst job. Bruce jumped at the chance to apply his skills in a “more useful” way.

“You have an opportunity to influence how policy makers think, and you have a chance to help them solve hard problems,” Bruce says of intelligence work.

Contrary to Hollywood images, the CIA is not just a giant spy warren, but also a place of rigorous research.

“Covert action is a tiny part of what the CIA does,” Bruce says. Mostly, he says, CIA analysts play a “cat and mouse game with adversaries” over missing, deceptive or misleading information.

During his years with the CIA, Bruce researched and wrote many reports, including a 1983 study of political instability in the USSR. The study makes a strong case — six years ahead of time — for the possibility of the Soviet state’s implosion. The CIA later declassified the report “to show it actually saw the coming collapse,” Bruce says. Intelligence successes such as that report are “more frequent than thought, and not well known,” Bruce says.

In contrast, known failures, such as the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, are often huge and very public. The CIA, Bruce explains, “has a vested interest in successes remaining secret.” Otherwise, the agency would reveal its techniques.

While a staunch critic of intelligence leaks, Bruce is more than happy to discuss certain aspects of his field. Since leaving the CIA and joining RAND in 2006, he has done so in numerous published studies. Bruce also co-edited Analyzing Intelligence: Origins, Obstacles, and Innovations (Georgetown University Press, 2008), a book that assesses of the state of post-9/11 intelligence analysis.

Bruce remains most enthusiastic about the steady stream of graduate-level intelligence classes he teaches Georgetown University. His job as an adjunct professor keeps him connected to the academic world he loves. Like his mentor Korbel, Bruce says, “I have a foot in both camps.”

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