Student’s Opinions on Intelligence and Security Services, Part 1

Student’s Opinions on Intelligence and Security Services, Part 1

How do students feel about intelligence related issues and how do their opinions change after learning more about these issues?

In the Master Crisis & Security Management of Leiden University, students can opt for the elective World of Intelligence. This course aims to give students an introduction to intelligence studies and the workings of intelligence and security services. During the first lecture we, the lecturers of the elective, ask students why they chose this course. Two reasons were frequently given: 1) intelligence services are rather mysterious and students want to learn more about them and 2) in light of the current debate in the Netherlands on the new Act on the Intelligence and Security Services, the topic was considered to be important. Combining these two reasons leads to an interesting observation: there is an ongoing debate on a subject people do not know a lot about. I therefore thought it would be interesting to see if students would change their opinions on intelligence related topics after they learned more about these topics.

During the first and fifth lecture, the students filled out a short survey in which they gave some insight in their opinion on intelligence related issues. This survey should not be considered as solid scientific research using validated surveys, representative sample sizes and generalizable conclusions. It is meant as an informal and fun way to see whether people will change their minds about intelligence related issues after learning more about it. Important to say is that the course World of Intelligence is aimed at giving students different perspectives on intelligence related issues by balancing academic literature and guest lecturers to teach students about both the theoretical and practical side of the world of intelligence and the dilemmas that come with it.

The survey

A short explanation of the survey may help to better understand the results. The survey consisted of five statements to which students could answer to what extent they agree with the statement on a five-point scale. An additional textbox was added below these statements. During the first lecture we asked students to write down anything they thought was important to mention about intelligence services or the current debate on the new Act on Intelligence and Security Services. During the fifth lecture, we repeated the survey. The five statements remained the same, but for the textbox we asked students to write down everything they changed their minds about during the course. To prevent this blog from becoming too long, I will discuss only the comments students made during the first lecture for now. In the next blog I will review students’ answers to the statements and on what topics they changed their minds.

First results

Students mentioned a wide range of topics regarding intelligence services and the Dutch debate on them. Five students made statements related to control and trust. A theme that was frequently mentioned was control and oversight. When there is sufficient oversight, citizens should be able to trust that intelligence services are doing their jobs and are not abusing their legal power. A second recurring theme is the upcoming referendum in the Netherlands on the new legislation. Three students stated that the referendum is not a good idea, as most people do not have enough knowledge about intelligence services to make a proper decision. A referendum would only be useful if everyone involved would know what intelligence services do, how they do it and what the risks involved are. Two students stated that in general people share a lot of information on the internet or with companies, making the discussion on the issue of privacy a bit odd (see also Liesbeth’s blog on this exact issue). An interesting comment made by one student was that the new legislation would allow Dutch intelligence services to gather a large amount of data, but that this would only complicate their work. They would be looking for a needle in a haystack. A final interesting comment was that the Netherlands is already relatively safe, raising the question as to what extent the new legislation and the related legal powers of the intelligence services are actually necessary.

The above gives a first glimpse of the fresh thoughts and insights of students taking the course World of Intelligence. As the students had just started the course, I can imagine that the general Dutch population shares these questions or issues. These topics would therefore be a good starting point for the debates that will undoubtedly take place in various forms in the media, leading to a better informed referendum. In the next blog I will discuss the other aspects of the student surveys.