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The 2022 Cambridge International Security and Intelligence Program Experience

By Ensign Sabrina K. Vitale, U.S. Navy

On 27 May 2022, I had the honor of graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy and commissioning as an intelligence officer. After graduation, the Naval Intelligence Professionals afforded me an amazing opportunity to jumpstart my intelligence career with a generous scholarship to attend the Cambridge Security Initiative (CSI) International Security and Intelligence (ISI) program during the months of July and August. This program is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that allowed me to learn from esteemed academics and practitioners from the intelligence and security communities, immerse myself in British culture and history, and build relationships with individuals that will last a lifetime. As I prepare for my initial schooling and Naval Intelligence career, I am confident I will apply the skills and lessons acquired during this program.

The 2022 ISI program was a four-week course at Magdalene College, Cambridge, United Kingdom, held in person for the first time since 2019. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was cancelled in 2020 and took place virtually in 2021. As a result, all faculty, staff, and participants were extremely eager and honored to be in Cambridge. The staff did everything in their power to ensure we had a memorable experience and multiple opportunities to learn, network, and explore. I appreciate the academic expertise provided through the lectures and workshops, and the cultural immersion as well. We explored Cambridge, London, and even got to visit Bletchley Park, the center of Allied codebreaking in World War II.

Fifty-two students were accepted into the 2022 program, from varying ethnic, educational, and professional backgrounds. Their ages ranged from 19 to 40, which allowed everyone to gain perspectives from individuals in different stages of life from around the world. Some students were still in the process of completing their undergraduate, graduate, or doctorate degrees, while others were working professionals in various fields, including political science, journalism, cyber, intelligence, security, and much more. Attendees came from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, Italy, Sweden, Israel, Australia, the Netherlands, and many other countries. Among this group, there was a large presence of previous and current military service, including a U.S. Navy lieutenant, a first-class Naval Academy midshipman, an Air Force ROTC cadet, a British army officer, two Swedish army officers, a former Brazilian air force officer, and myself (the only female military officer in the program).

Every lecture was dedicated to a different topic in intelligence and security, and all the students attended these lectures as a group. After each lecture, the students were divided into smaller seminar groups that would meet at varying times to dive deeper into the topic. Furthermore, students were broken into supervision groups and paired with a professor (supervisor) that corresponded with the topic of their course assignment, a 3,500-word research paper on any intelligence or national security topic. For my paper, I investigated the role of jihadist women in the reemergence of ISIS, to include their recruitment and evolving responsibilities in the terrorist organization since the fall of the caliphate in 2019. 

The ISI program granted me the unique opportunity to listen to, speak with, and learn from highly respected and knowledgeable academics, practitioners, and professionals in the intelligence and security fields, to include professors at world-renowned universities, employees from the federal and private sectors, and current and former agents in leading intelligence communities, including the CIA, FBI, MI5, MI6, and DoD. I learned invaluable information, including the different forms of intelligence collection, the histories of intelligence agencies around the world, and emerging intelligence and security threats. Two of my favorite topics were the importance of intelligence liaisons and how intelligence is shared among different states, and the evolving role of intelligence collection in today’s digital age. Finally, I found the diversity of this program, both ethnically and professionally, to be most useful and educational because it allowed us to hear different opinions and perspectives on varying topics, which sparked great conversations and discussions.

The highlight of the program was the annual CSI Conference, “Intelligence and National Security in a Changing World,” a two-day event that included various panels and keynote sessions on today’s most serious security and intelligence challenges. All the speakers had immense knowledge and expertise in their fields. This year’s conference focused on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, challenges to democracy in a digital world, and the competition between the great powers. As a Naval Intelligence officer, I found the most notable and pertinent session to be the U.S. Naval Institute panel on the implications of China’s growing navy.

I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities, knowledge, and relationships created at ISI, and I am very excited to start my career in Naval Intelligence and lead some of the best and brightest sailors in the Navy.