Award from the Center for International Studies supports women pursuing doctorates in international affairs.
Michelle English | MIT Center for International Studies
Suzanne Freeman and Mariel Garcia-Montes are the recipients of this year’s Jeanne Guillemin Prize at the Center for International Studies (CIS).
The prize provides financial support to women studying international affairs, a field that has long been dominated by men. Jeanne Guillemin, a veteran colleague at CIS, endowed the fund shortly before her death in 2019. An authority on biological warfare, one of her important investigations exposed the Soviet Union’s role in the 1979 lethal anthrax outbreak in the city of Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg.
“As a woman who studies the Soviet Union and Russia today, it is especially meaningful to get this award,” says Freeman, who is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science, and a student at the Security Studies Program (SSP) where Guillemin had served as a senior advisor. “Dr. Guillemin was a trailblazer for women, international security, and also someone who shared an interest in the region that I study, including the abuses of justice in the Soviet government.”
Garcia-Montes, a student in the doctoral program in History, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society (HASTS), described special significance, too, in being awarded the prize: “I’m really moved to be a recipient of the Jeanne Guillemin prize because of her contribution to international affairs research, but also because of the origins of the prize — to help support women in academia. As I reflect on the past decade that has shaped my research project, there have been a lot of women in academia who have really been there for me, mentoring me and helping me face the challenges women in academia face. I’m so grateful to be a part of this legacy.”
Spying on the KGB
Freeman will apply the funds toward her dissertation research on the role of authoritarian intelligence organizations in shaping foreign policy agendas within their states.
Her case studies look at the KGB and its successor organizations — the FSB and SVR — and how they influenced national security decisions made by Russia and the former Soviet Union dating back to the Cold War era.
“Because the KGB held so much sway within the Soviet Union, it’s a unique opportunity to look at a very powerful intelligence organization and to build a theory on this type of activity. Most of the available research looks only at intelligence agencies within democratic nations — like the United States and the United Kingdom — where there are constitutional checks and balances that don’t exist within autocratic countries,” she explains.
Fieldwork has landed her in Poland and Lithuania to mine primary data now available in those nations’ archives. She has also gained access to documents from Russia — although unable to travel there since its invasion of Ukraine — through the U.S. Library of Congress and Stanford University’s Hoover Library and Archive.
Her academic sleuthing allows her to eavesdrop on KGB communications to other intelligence agencies and to its own heads of state during national security crises of historical significance.
In some instances, these communications resulted in alliances, such as the Indo-Soviet Friendship and Cooperation Treaty in 1971; in more aggressive behavior, such as the Soviet-Afghanistan war in 1979; and in no military action at all, such as the Sino-Soviet border conflict of 1969 and the anti-Communist solidarity protests in Poland in the 1980s. But why?
Her research will help provide a better understanding of these kinds of foreign policy decisions, and the strategies employed by autocratic intelligence organizations to influence government leadership.
It could also provide insights into how today’s authoritarian regimes respond to perceived threats on national security issues, including the current war in Ukraine.
“We will never be able to read the minds of authoritarian leaders, but we can gain a clear historical understanding of how autocratic intelligence organizations, such as the KGB, have either shared select information or taken initiative in intelligence operations to serve their own preferences of national security.”
Digital technology and social justice
“Power and political events are entangled in our tools,” explains Garcia-Montes.
Her dissertation research focuses on digital technology and its impact on privacy and information security across disparate societies, especially in her home country of Mexico.
“This includes everything from government-sponsored surveillance on specific individuals to more everyday cultures of surveillance that are inherent in the digital tools we use in the workplace and our personal lives,” she says.
Mexico’s use of the spyware Pegasus is one of the subjects of her case study. The surveillance tool was developed in 2011 by an Israeli cyber-arms company with the intended goal of being used by authorized countries to combat terror and crime.
Pegasus is now under global legal investigations, including in the United States and the European Union, for its nefarious deployment by oppressive regimes and criminal organizations. Egregious human rights violations have been committed against journalists, government officials, and activists.
“What makes Mexico’s use of Pegasus important is that it shows the perils of a surveillance technology that is intended to increase national security by governments with democratic ideals. But, as we see in Mexico, such a technology can become easily exploited in a nation that seemingly fits that description but has very little oversight regarding surveillance acquisition.”
Mexico was the first country to purchase and the most prolific user of Pegasus. The abuse of the malware ignited a wave of activism and advocacy and governmental awareness, both in Mexico and worldwide.
A line had been crossed even for a country that had pretty much normalized surveillance, explains Garcia-Montes.
“This is not a random story. It all started because a coalition of researchers and activists — many of whom were targets of the malware — took the steps to find out how and why this happened. Thanks to their work, governments have blacklisted Pegasus and there is much more discussion around cyber arms and especially surveillance malware,” she explains.
Apart from Pegasus, her work analyzes other contemporary projects such as the deployment of biometric technologies for identification, and workplace surveillance through productivity suites. She is also building on a longer legacy of surveillance, which she studies through a historical lens at the secret police collection in Mexico’s National Archive.
A global map and a great tsunami
An “aha!” moment at a young age led to what Freeman and Garcia-Montes describe today as a linear academic path.
For Freeman, who grew up in Boston during the 1990s, the dissolution of the Soviet Union became a curiosity in primary school.
“The world maps in our social studies classes still had the Soviet Union represented as one state. I asked a lot of questions about what exactly happened here, and why. But I never got a clear answer from my teachers. This really made me want to learn more and solve that puzzle myself,” says Freeman, who originally envisioned becoming a Russian historian.
As an undergraduate student at Columbia University, she realized that political science, instead, was her field of interest. She wrote her thesis on Russian military reform and went on to get her master’s degree at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. She then worked as a researcher at the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, and as an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
She credits Kimberly Marten and Austin Long PhD ’10, both of whom were her professors while she was at Columbia, and Olga Oliker PhD ’16, under whom she worked at CSIS, for cultivating her research interests and planting the seeds for her PhD thesis.
They also strongly recommended MIT, and specifically SSP where both Long and Oliker studied, as the ideal home for her doctorate.
SSP’s research and teaching staff is comprised of social scientists and policy analysts who focus on national and international security problems and is among the world’s leading graduate education programs in its field.
“At MIT, there is a large community of doctoral students and faculty who are focusing on both security studies and comparative politics, which aligns with my research areas in a unique way that I couldn’t find anywhere else,” says Freeman, who is among a supportive cohort of graduate students at SSP, which is based at CIS.
Freeman also co-leads the Working Group on Women in International Politics and Security at CIS. The group, co-founded by Guillemin and her SSP colleague Cindy Williams during their early years at CIS, builds networks with researchers who work on international security issues and who share an interest in advancing opportunities for women in this field.
Garcia-Montes first became aware of the ways inequality plays out in digital technologies during junior high school in Mexico City.
“There was a great tsunami in Asia and I was interacting online with peers around the globe. It dawned on me then that most of my classmates had no idea what had just happened. I was one of the few middle school students that had access to a digital space where teenagers were discussing this in real time. Our use of technology was different. Mine came with privilege. So I wanted to use my time to level this space. Seventeen years later, I end up writing about one the biggest displays of digital inequality in my country.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Garcia began doing research in open data, privacy and security, strategic communications, and other digital literacies for organizations in Mexico, the United States, and around the world. This included places like UNICEF, Wikimedia Foundation, Internews, and the Latin American Initiative on Open Data.
She first came to MIT to study at the MIT Comparative Media Studies program. There she received her master’s and found inspiration from — and a kindred academic spirit with — Sasha Costanza-Chock, who studies networked social movements, transformative media organizing, and design justice.
Now at HASTS, she finds inspiration in her advisors’ work to study political processes through the study of science and technology, including: Eden Medina, associate professor of science, technology, and society; Tanalís Padilla, professor of history; Héctor Beltrán, assistant professor of anthropology; and Will Deringer, associate professor of science, technology, and society.
Catherine D’Ignazio, an associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, is also among her academic role models. D’Ignazio directs the Data + Feminism Lab, where Garcia-Montes is a research affiliate. Garcia-Montes is also a member of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, where she finds a community of like-minded scholars.
MIT was the only place in the world she wanted to study — she wants to make that clear. It offers her an opportunity to understand what she describes as the people side, the artifact side, and the objects at the center of her research. Something she believes she could only do at a place like MIT.
“I’m in a space where I’m encouraged to exercise my right to think. I want to express my heartfelt thanks to all the professors in HASTS and at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences that foster this kind of space. I’ll always be a HASTS and SHASS fangirl.”