Auburn University has become a recruiting hotbed for the nation’s premier intelligence agencies, and its reputation for such is quickly on the rise.
The CIA, FBI, CISA, FEMA, TSA and other alphabet-soup government agencies all have made both private and public — sometimes surprisingly so — visits to Auburn in recent months, with one common denominator: finding star talent to serve the nation in jobs not everyone is qualified to do.
Or, brave enough to do.
A growing reputation
Universities worldwide long have attracted such recruiters from the United States and similarly within other nations, as the age and budding talent brim with the idea of exciting adventure or dedicated duty to provide the resources agencies such as these need.
What seems to put Auburn in good respect is its long-standing tradition of producing military heroes, its growing reputation in various research and development fields such as cybersecurity, and a student base that comes from a strong culture of patriotism, various officials confided.
“One of the reasons I came to Auburn … is its commitment to security issues,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of Auburn University’s McCrary Institute for Cybersecurity and Critical Infrastructure Security, the type of prime intelligence-field incubator where Feds love to recruit.
“That,” he said of the commitment, “and the fact that everyone here bleeds red, white and blue.”
What Cilluffo already has done for Auburn in his relatively short time on the job since September 2018 is remarkable.
The McCrary Institute, founded in 2015, has leaped to the front lines in research, development, analysis and strategy-planning efforts with study of ever-evolving cybersecurity issues and threats. Cilluffo long has served as an important adviser to top government and military officials in Washington.
Another big factor in his landing at Auburn is the presence of a retired three-star general who served as the former director of the U.S Defense Intelligence Agency and adviser to presidents: Ronald Burgess.
Burgess is among the country’s most respected former military officers and intelligence experts. He also is an Auburn University alum, having returned home to serve today as Auburn’s executive vice president.
Cilluffo credits Burgess for the general’s support as another major contributor to the rapid rise of the McCrary Institute’s reputation.
Cilluffo himself, meanwhile, continues luring to Auburn visits by the biggest of big-time players in the intelligence and federal-service fields.
CIA Director Gina Haspel
Haspel made a rare public appearance in April 2019 and discussed several of the top global threats of concern to the United States, as well as openly admitting that recruiting for the CIA was among the reasons for her visit.
“You can find an Auburn football fan anywhere, even in the most remote corners of the world,” America’s chief spy said. “But in all seriousness, it is places like this where you can find future CIA agents as well.”
Haspel encouraged university students and faculty to consider a career in the Central Intelligence Agency, citing Auburn University as an excellent place to recruit because of its long and storied career of producing military and intelligence experts “willing to do the tough jobs.”
She highlighted the career of Johnny Michael Spann, who joined the Marine Corps while attending Auburn and went on to serve a decorated career in the military and then the CIA.
Soon after the terror attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Spann, an Alabama native, became the first American killed in action in Afghanistan.
“The CIA doesn’t do easy. The hard jobs come to us,” Haspel said.
Regarding jobs with the CIA, she pointed to a wide spectrum that includes needs in the fields of foreign language, cyber security, analysts, finance officers, logistics, librarians, field agents, clerks, case workers and lawyers.
“We have every discipline in the world,” she said. “Really…it can offer a very rich and rewarding career across a wide range of disciplines.”
Retired Admiral Michael Rogers:
Former director, National Security Agency
Former commander, U.S. Cyber Command
Rogers, who himself is a 1981 Auburn business alumnus, retired from the U.S. Navy in 2018 after nearly 37 years of naval service and rising to the rank of four-star admiral. He is a former commander of the U.S. Cyber Command and a former director of the National Security Agency.
It is his expertise in cybersecurity that most often seems to reconnect him with Auburn.
Rogers has spoken on campus multiple times over the past three years, most recently in public during an October appearance. He also serves on the advisory board for Auburn’s McCrary Institute.
David P. Pekoske:
Administrator, Transportation Security Administration, or TSA
Pekoske appeared on Auburn’s campus in late November 2019 and talked about the various needs of the TSA. He was accompanied during the visit by Alabama Congressman Mike Rogers, who serves in a senior capacity on the House Homeland Security Committee.
Pekoske leads a workforce of approximately 60,000 employees, including the Federal Air Marshal Service, and is responsible for security operations at nearly 450 airports and surface transportation systems such as railroads, ports, mass transit and pipelines.
Director, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)
Krebs was another prominent agency director on Auburn’s campus — twice in late 2019 — who stressed the importance that Auburn University and other universities play in realizing national security objectives.
Among them being the academic role, such as Auburn’s cybersecurity and engineering programs.
“We have to figure out a better way to bring the talent across higher education and K-12 into the cybersecurity ecosystem,” he said. “We have to ensure there is a talent base that is security-first that comes into the high-tech community.
“So when you develop something, whether it’s an IoT (internet of things) device or an industrial control system, that it’s not about being first to market; that it’s not about just making sure the thing works. It’s about thinking through how these things can be exploited and ensuring they are secure by design and secure by deployment.”
Auburn University is one of a select group of institutions designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in cyber defense research, cyber defense education, and cyber operations, as noted by the National Security Agency.
Krebs made numerous comments about his interest in recruiting future talent from Auburn.
CISA assistant director
Harrell accompanied Krebs during one of his visits and talked about various needs of service in protecting America’s infrastructure.
Providing security training and insight is a big part of his duties, and a local example he shared, among many, is the protection and emergency response training needed for a structure such as Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium on a game day with nearly 90,000 fans in attendance.
Several local emergency administrators joined Auburn students to hear Harrell speak.
FBI deputy director
Bowdich visited Auburn on Jan. 31 and spoke to a crowded room of more than 300 that included local law enforcement, state officials, university leaders, and of prime interest for him: curious students.
In what was primarily a symbolic gesture, Auburn President Jay Gogue and Bowdich signed a memorandum of understanding spelling out a new arrangement between the university and Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The agreement calls Auburn a partner with the FBI as it expands its workforce and operations in Huntsville, where the bureau is setting up a second headquarters and plans a $1 billion investment that will include 1,000 jobs and a special emphasis on cyber crime.
The university will educate and train bureau employees, and provide next-generation specialists needed to take on critical roles across the agency.
The FBI and Auburn also will share mutually beneficial information, research and technology that advances criminal justice and student and faculty opportunities, according to sources.
Bowdich appealed to the patriotic duty and rewards of serving in a federal agency as opposed to often higher-paying jobs in private industry.
“If the college students out there hear nothing else, hear this: Serve your country,” Bowdich said. “It will provide you more gratification than that big check will.”
More will come
Most of the visiting officials at Auburn during 2019 and early 2020 agreed that the school’s reputation for providing excellent personnel will continue to get attention in Washington as next-generation spies, special agents, defense officials, cyber experts, researchers and military leaders will emerge to fulfill their duty.
That bodes well for Auburn University, local leaders say, and in turn, for the protection of the nation.
Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News and previously was based in New York as the news, opinion and military editor for Digital First Media, which at the time was the nation's second-largest newspaper company. He holds a master's degree in history/international relations.