James Olson was in his final weeks of law school when he received a mysterious phone call that changed the trajectory of his career.
“Are you interested in serving your country?” asked the caller.
As a small-town Iowa boy with hopes of becoming a local lawyer, Olson couldn’t have guessed that a representative from the CIA was on the other end of the line. “To this day, I still don’t know how the CIA became aware of me,” he recalled while glancing over the scattered photographs and memorabilia that cover his office walls. “At the time, I assumed it might have had something to do with my time in the Navy, but I was never told.”
In the days that followed the call, he was catapulted into a life he hadn’t planned to lead—one that would introduce him to his future wife, send him across the world as an undercover operative, and eventually lead him to teach at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.
The life of a spy
Olson was born in Le Mars, Iowa, and studied math and economics at the University of Iowa. Upon graduating, he was commissioned into the Navy, where he traveled the world. “It was a great adventure for a small-town boy,” he said.
Eventually, he returned to his roots and enrolled at the University of Iowa College of Law. “My goal was to become a small-town attorney,” he said, but all of that changed when he agreed to meet the unnamed man who called with the unusual question.
Days later, he found himself in the corner of a hotel lobby, sitting across from a CIA recruiter. The man told Olson he was an ideal candidate for the agency and asked him to apply. Olson submitted an application on a whim and was accepted after several interviews and tests.
During his initial training, he met his future wife, Meredith, who was a German analyst for the CIA. Once married, they were deployed around the world as a “tandem couple.” They served in major international capitals like Vienna, Moscow, Mexico City and other places that cannot be named. “Our lives seemed normal to us because everyone we knew was undercover,” Olson said. “As a spy, you live two lives. You go to your cover job during the day, and at night you work your true job as a CIA operative,” said Olson.
Olson participated in multiple missions during his time abroad, most of which are still classified, but one mission in 1979 sticks out in his memory. As the Communists controlled Moscow and the Cold War reigned, the couple worked secretly to turn Russian nationals against their government and gain access to Soviet secrets. That year, CIA satellites photographed a tunnel used to shelter communications lines that ran from Moscow to secret facilities outside the city. These locations were high priority intelligence targets for the U.S. government, and Olson was selected to take part in a cable tapping mission known as GTTAW. He trained for the operation in the U.S. by practicing entering a replica manhole and accessing the cable lines.
On the day of the mission, Meredith helped him exploit a flaw in the KGB surveillance—allowing him to evade the surveillance team, don a disguise and make his way toward the manhole. “It was just like in training,” he said, “and the mission was successful.” For his part in the operation, Olson was awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit by the CIA.
Gone to Texas
Eventually, after completing many missions, the couple decided to return to the U.S., where Olson applied for the Officer in Residence Program, a CIA initiative to place officers in teaching positions on college campuses. He was chosen for a position in Milwaukee but just weeks before the move, George Tenet, former director of the CIA, called with a proposition.
“He said, ‘You’ll never guess who just called me,’” Olson recalled of his conversation with Tenet.
Tenet had received a call from President George H.W. Bush. Texas A&M was creating a graduate school of government and public service and naming it after the 41st president, and the university was also to become the location of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. President Bush wanted a candidate from the Officer in Residence Program to be placed at the school, and Olson was the perfect fit. Tenet, knowing the couple was moving to Milwaukee soon, asked that they simply visit College Station and give it a look.
Within a day, they jumped on a plane and headed for Texas. “When a former president calls on you, your answer isn’t, ‘Yes.’ It’s, ‘Yes sir,’” said Olson. “We didn’t know much about Texas A&M except that they played good football and had a legendary Corps of Cadets,” he said, but when they arrived in Aggieland, he and Meredith quickly learned what set Texas A&M apart. “We were so impressed by the faith, honor and traditions built into the university,” he added. “We went back to headquarters and said, ‘We’re going to Texas A&M.’ It was a leap of faith.
“When we got to Texas, Meredith joked that out of all the places we had lived, coming to Texas was probably our most foreign assignment yet,” he laughed, “but it didn’t take long to appreciate the friendliness and courteousness of the people here.”
Public service: A noble calling
Now, in his 21st year teaching at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, Olson leads classes on intelligence, counterintelligence, national security, counter-terrorism and international crisis management—topics he gained firsthand experience with during his years as an undercover CIA officer.
For Olson, his teaching career has provided him with an avenue to further serve his country and to pass on the calling of public service. “I am just so motivated to help young men and women realize their dream of serving our country,” he said. “Public service is what we believe in—it’s our mission, our code, our ethic. As President Bush said, public service is a noble calling.”
Today, President Bush’s belief permeates the halls of the school. In the class of 2017 alone, graduates were hired by the CIA, FBI, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Armed Forces and placed in operational units around the world, as well as countless other agencies in the public and private sector. Approximately 300 Bush School graduates have gone into intelligence careers.
“Recruiters have told me several times that they’ve never seen better candidates than those coming out of the Bush School, because students here learn the nitty-gritty of how to get the job done,” said Olson.
What sets the Bush School apart is its focus on practitioner-based teaching. From the beginning, the school decided on a professional focus for its intelligence courses, with the confidence that these classes are best taught by individuals who served in intelligence careers. Other graduate programs in intelligence studies are more theoretical and emphasize an academic approach to intelligence studies. The Bush School is different by design: It combines a well-rounded academic curriculum with practitioner faculty who have practical, real-world experience to impart to students.
Students pursuing intelligence studies take part in a rigorous two-year curriculum that emphasizes hands-on skills, foreign language, intelligence, research and public service. Thanks to the programs offered and its internationally acclaimed faculty, the Bush School has gained national recognition.
The 2018 U.S. News and World Report ranked the Bush School in the top 10 percent of public affairs schools. The school was also named the “best value” in the nation by the online resource Value Colleges, but Olson isn’t satisfied just yet. “Before I retire, I want to make certain that the Bush School is the unquestioned premier public affairs and intelligence program in the country,” he said.
The former spy finds his purpose not only in the Bush School itself, but also in its students. “My students mean so much to me,” he said while reaching for a copy of his soon-to-be released book, “To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence.” Inside, the dedication reads: “To my students at the Bush School of Government and Public Service of Texas A&M University, who inspire me every day with their dedication and commitment to serving our country.”
“That sums up why I’m here, and it’s also what President Bush hoped for when he created this school,” he added. “I know he was very proud of this place and its potential.”