James Madison University

From the CIA to the Classroom

By: Jordan Pye
Posted: November 11, 2011

Dr. Tim Walton’s 24-year career in the CIA not only gave him a wealth of foreign policy experience and few brushes with history, but an inside understanding of how intelligence analysis can be improved.

His steps toward making these changes began at James Madison University this fall, teaching Introduction to National Security Intelligence (IA 200). He sees higher education as an important way to improve the industry systematically.

“I think the intelligence community needs to do more,” Walton said. “The Association of Former Intelligence Officers has literature, but it’s not quite like the AMA. That’s where professional intelligence is weak and JMU has a real niche and future to make that happen.”

He blames busy people and the “need-to-know” secret nature of the work for causing the lag in professional development. But in IA 200, Walton hopes to better prepare the next generation of analysts by sharing experiences from his career.

“I can bring a sense of the real world, I’ve actually been there and done that,” Walton said. “I had a great career as an intelligence officer, and I want to bring this to JMU students and show what they can do.”

Walton’s own path to analysis began indirectly after he graduated from William and Mary in 1970, and joined the Navy as a communicator aboard a flagship in the U.S. Atlantic fleet. His first assignment was in Iceland, monitoring Soviet missile subs on a transit route to deploy nuclear weapons off the U.S. coast.

When he transferred to a flagship stationed in the Mediterranean he saw more action, most memorably two warship visits to Monaco where Princess Grace chatted with his enlisted friend about their hometown of Philadelphia. During his time overseas he travelled to more than 30 cities in 15 different countries.

Through the Navy Walton experienced foreign policy firsthand and obtained the crucial security clearance, then he earned his doctorate from the University of Virginia and began working as an analyst for the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence in 1982. Until 2006 he served an overt employee in the U.S., and completed a two-year rotation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon. While working on the Kosovo conflict he traveled to Belgrade and met with Madeleine Albright, secretary of state during the Clinton administration. In 1996 the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board gave him the James R. Killian Award, which is unique because it is based on nominations from high-ranking consumers of intelligence. 

“How you see and understand the problem is so important,” Walton said, recalling his first real experience with foreign policy crisis while serving on the Sixth Fleet flagship during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, a historic intelligence failure because the Israelis missed signs that Egypt and Syria planned to attack. The flagship was the first to detect indications that the Soviets were planning to intervene in the conflict and challenge America’s role in the Middle East. Besides the Cuban missile crisis it was the closest the U.S. came to outright war with the USSR.

 “Are you analyzing correctly what you see?” Walton asked, because analysts don’t have to be paranoid to assume that information is meant to deceive them. “But you can only work with what you have. If someone lays out the clues for you, then you have to have a range of explanations.”

Context is essential to understanding a situation, and Walton sees a need for thoughtful professionals who can interpret the big picture. His students can learn much from events like 9/11 and the 2003 hunt for weapons of mass destruction, where sloppy methodology crept into the analysis. Misunderstanding other cultures was part of the problem, and Walton believes that enhancing intelligence with cultural awareness could be more effective. 

“It’s been the same stuff since Pearl Harbor,” Walton said, explaining that the U.S. thought a power display strategy would make Japan back down, but didn’t anticipate how a samurai culture would perceive this as a threat. “One of the sad things is we make the same mistakes [and] should know better…I see my role with professionalization is to break this cycle and bring awareness of other cultures and how they respond.”

Some plans he will help develop include expanding internship opportunities and bringing in professionals as guest speakers, such as CIA historical staff and FBI terrorism experts. He considers these partnerships a good way for students to learn from inside stories, an awareness that comes in handy during job interviews. Another goal is to increase JMU’s name recognition as one of the few schools in the country with a serious undergraduate program.

“It’s not all secretive,” Walton said. “The stuff you can tell people is an enormous amount. It gives people a realistic idea of what the work is like and how these people talk and think. The overall goal is to make the  JMU program one of the leaders on a nationwide basis.”


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