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The Carletonian

Jon Olson brings military experience to Poli Sci

<n Olson, a 21-year veteran of naval intelligence and an on-again, off-again visiting lecturer at Carleton, considers himself a practitioner as opposed to a theoretician. Both in and outside the classroom, he tries to provide real-world perspective gained through years of working in the military.

After graduating from high school, Olson attended the United States Naval Academy, earning a Bachelor of Science in History while playing on their varsity hockey team. After graduation, he began work in naval intelligence, with an initial tour of duty in San Diego in the early 1990s. He then spent four years at U.S. Special Operations Command supporting units like SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force before transferring to work for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

As part of his duties at DIA, he was selected for training by the CIA and sent through “The Farm,” which qualified him as a case-officer. Using this expertise, Olson ran human intelligence operations around the world, cultivating assets, overseeing existing operations and terminating others that had run their course.

In 2001, Olson found himself as the head intelligence officer for an Amphibious Ready Group stationed in Japan. Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, his unit was re-stationed to the Indian Ocean, from where he oversaw intelligence operations throughout Indonesia, securing the safety of the roughly 50,000 American expats living in the archipelago.

Olson became a leading figure in America’s war on terrorism in the mid-2000s, rebuilding the Navy’s human intelligence (HUMINT) services from the ground up. Throughout the 1990s, the U.S. military systematically shifted HUMINT operations from individual branches to centralized control under DIA. Once the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, however, it became clear that centralized HUMINT was not nimble or effective enough for new types of targets. “The only way you hunt down terrorists is with human intelligence,” noted Olson. Being the most experienced case officer in the Navy at this point, it was only natural that Olson would be tasked with rebuilding HUMINT for Naval Intelligence, which he oversaw until his appointment as Naval Attaché at the American embassy in Finland.

After completing his assignment in Helsinki, Olson retired from the Navy, returning to native Minnesota for a quieter life on his 5-acre hobby farm.
Olson did not sit still for long, though. Over dinner last week, he reflected on his time at the U.S. Naval War College, where he earned a Master’s in National Security and Strategic Studies in 2004. “I loved getting back to the academic community,” he said. He particularly enjoyed the pedagogical aspect, and saw teaching as a way to continue his commitment to the country. “The oath of office [that members of the military take at the beginning of their career] is a commitment to serve the nation and its community, perhaps for life,” Olson said, and added that it encouraged him to seek out teaching opportunities.

After teaching courses at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and Metropolitan State University on security and counter-terrorism, Olson decided to try to find teaching positions closer to home, contacting members of the Political Science departments at both Carleton and St. Olaf.
Professor Al Montero, then Chair of Political Science, quickly saw Olson’s potential as a career practitioner in an important area of political science. “Political science has a strong applied element to it,” he said, “but we [scholars of foreign policy and diplomacy] have an academic background, we don’t have an experience-based background.”

Olson was invited to give a guest lecture in January of 2013, in which he gave a primer on the U.S. intelligence community. His talk impressed the department enough to send his information along to then Associate Dean Arjendu Pattanayak for further review, after which he was hired to teach a course on the U.S. Intelligence Community in the fall of 2013.

This course was so successful that Greg Marfleet, the current Chair of Political Science, brought Olson back to teach a similar course in Winter 2017. Olson will be back on campus once again next fall as the F.R. Bigelow Teacher in Residence, teaching a new course on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs).

This is a particularly exciting new course, offering a truly interdisciplinary approach to the subject. Officially registered as a political science course, the course will consist of lectures by Olson on the policy aspects of WMDs, by professors of physics and chemistry on the structural components of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and by computer science professors on cyberwarfare and cybersecurity. When describing the course, Olson was quick to allay the fears of all non-mathematicians: “The course will not involve solving problems, but will discuss components in layman’s terms with a technical perspective.”

Despite not being trained in teaching, Olson brings a teacher’s perspective to the classroom. He knows that intelligence and security studies can be daunting at times, but does his best to “bring them along through the course.” Part of his self-described mandate is to set the record straight on U.S. security capabilities. “I try to separate fact from the fiction you often see in the news media,” he noted, although that oftentimes does not involve personal anecdotes. “In the classroom, I try not to use my personal experience – I try to keep it academic – unless my personal experiences will add a specific value to the topic.”

His teaching style resonates with students here. Nick Caputo ’19, a student in Olson’s Intelligence, Policy and Conflict course last term, said that Olson’s past experiences give him a unique background.

“I think he adds a perspective that is, to some degree, lacking at Carleton,” Caputo said, noting that his focus on practical policy resolutions is a nice departure from the more academic research focus of other political science courses.

In his former life, Olson frequently recruited junior officers and foreign assets to serve the intelligence needs of the United States. Today, his objectives have changed. “My intent when I come in to teach is never, ever to recruit anyone for the armed forces or intelligence community,” he explains. “I came here to serve the students.” Of course, if anyone becomes interested in the world of intelligence-gathering, Olson said he is “happy to help in any way I can; that’s what mentors do.”

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