Spies like us: Fairmont State University’s National Security and Intelligence program

Four intelligence analysts are hunched over a computer screen. On the wall behind them are various maps of the world and three clocks that show the hour in different times zones. They have tracked everything from the Russian military’s involvement in the Ukraine to vulnerabilities with NASA’s Hubble Telescope.

But on this particular Tuesday afternoon, with the lights off and computer screens bright, they are diving into the nefarious underworld of email scams. The project’s codename is Operation Trident.

The lab is known as OSIX, short for Open Source Intelligence Exchange, and it’s run by the cream of the crop from the school’s National Security and Intelligence (NSI) program. Out of the department’s approximately 200 students, only 16 are currently working in the lab. “We take our best and brightest and put them in that environment,” explains Professor David Abruzzino.

Students in the OSIX lab sift through court records, public databases and, now more than ever, social media posts. When the devastating floods ravaged West Virginia towns in the summer of 2016, a group of FSU students were monitoring Facebook and Twitter for people in need. “OSIX was instrumental in identifying somebody who had a need for police assistance and then notifying the state authorities,” says Professor Todd Clark, who mentors the students in the lab. “Social media monitoring really paid off. It’s a key to a lot of what we do.” The advantage these students have, he says, is that they grew up with these technologies. “They have a sixth sense of where to look on social media. They have a fresh perspective.”

Nick Oliveto, a 29-year-old native of Fairmont, was one of the first students to partake in the OSIX lab before graduating FSU in 2012. After school, he got a job with Lockheed Martin before moving on to law school. He’s now working as a counter-terrorism analyst in the Maryland suburbs. “The program gave me the professional foundation needed to pursue my career,” he says. “I use what I learned at Fairmont every day.”

Oliveto credits his success to teachers like Abruzzino who, before arriving at FSU a decade ago, was in the CIA where his area of expertise was the heroin trade in Afghanistan. “In many cases when we’re talking about concepts that are expressed in their textbooks, I can bring up a real-world experience I had where I faced that situation and can explain to them how it played out in a real-world scenario,” Abruzzino says.

Students have come from across the country – as far away as Oregon – to enroll in Fairmont’s NSI department. The school’s proximity to the national security community in D.C. makes having guest speakers easy. And the FBI office in Clarksburg comes to campus to recruit students for internships.

Alumni have landed gigs at dozens of national agencies – including the CIA, FBI and NASA. Many have opted to stay in the region and work for the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and the West Virginia Army National Guard. An NSI master’s program is in the works for those students who want to further their education even more.

Back in the lab, the team of students are prepping a presentation they will be giving at the state capitol in Charleston. There, they will meet state delegates and senators and show them the latest project they are working on. It may not be the CIA, but it’s a step in the right direction. As a sign on the wall declares: “You don’t have to start out as an expert. You just have to start.”