Unlikely Bedfellows

FBI reaches out to colleges to promote the security of academic research within an open system.
June 13, 2007

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and higher education as a whole have enjoyed a decidedly un-cozy relationship since the Vietnam War – a fact that many in academe have found to be just fine with them, thanks.

But if the FBI and higher education still aren't the best of friends, they appear to be interacting a lot more. Reports this week about a nationwide FBI outreach program in which agents set up meetings with college leaders to discuss strategies for safeguarding academic research from unfriendly foreign interests have fueled growing concerns that the two entities are cozying up in uncomfortable ways these days in the name of national security.

And yet the reports have also raised awareness of the agency's potential value as a resource as colleges confront the vulnerability inherent in an open system producing reams of research on topics intimately tied to America’s economic and physical security.

“Much of the nation’s intellectual property is produced in universities, in which they have a culture of sharing and openness. Yet, there are countries and there are intelligence services that would exploit these types of studies,” said Bill Carter, a spokesman at FBI headquarters in Washington. Academic freedom, Carter said, must “coexist with government concerns.”

“Now that the world has changed, it’s more open. We have business delegations coming into the country, we have thousands and thousands of foreign students that an intelligence service could penetrate or utilize … for intelligence-related purposes,” Carter said. “We have direct evidence that’s taking place.”

The FBI’s Counterintelligence Domain Program, which charges field offices across the nation with identifying vulnerable entities, including colleges and businesses, and with briefing their leaders about resources to strengthen security, is nothing new, Carter said.

Bob Hardy, director of contracts and intellectual property management for the Council on Governmental Relations, a group that helps universities navigate federal rules on research, added that his organization has known of the FBI meetings with college leaders for at least a year. Nevertheless, The Boston Globe’s report Tuesday of the Boston field office’s efforts to meet with local college leaders -- a spokeswoman for the local office said Tuesday that its director has met with administrators at Boston, Hampshire and Smith Colleges, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Universities of Massachusetts at Amherst and Rhode Island, and Worchester Polytechnic Institute, all since February -- has attracted some more public attention.

That’s despite the fact that the meetings themselves appear to be mainly informational in nature. “It was really the FBI contacting us and saying, ‘We understand that you’re doing more and more international collaboration through research and other activities of an educational nature and we want people to be aware of potential problems that could compromise intellectual property -- and we have a whole cadre of resources that can educate faculty and others on these issues,'” said Robert Weygand, vice president of administration at the University of Rhode Island. Weygand attended a meeting in early May, he said, with the university’s president and the local FBI officials.

Suggestions for safeguarding intellectual property reflect common sense, said Special Agent Gail A. Marcinkiewicz, the spokeswoman for the Boston FBI field office: Be skeptical of people who seem oddly interested in learning details of your research for no apparent reason; take notice if you’re finding graduate students in areas they shouldn’t be accessing.

Weygand said, however, that the University of Rhode Island would be moving slowly in deciding whether to utilize the FBI’s resources in preventing such campus security breaches that could happen when, for instance, a faculty member with research materials on a laptop logs online in a foreign country. “We do not want to impede whatsoever the research and the entrepreneurship of our faculty and staff, and that’s why we will go cautiously,” Weygand said -- citing concerns about academic freedom and dampening the spirit of collaboration in research.

The informational meetings in themselves seem fairly straightforward, said John Reinstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “The issue is whether this grows into a more active collaboration between the university and the FBI and how people respond to that.” He referred, for instance, to an increasing coziness evidenced by the enlistment of campus police officers to participate in the work of the joint terrorism task force in the wake of September 11.

“As it was described and from what I read, the FBI was simply offering to do a briefing to say, ‘These are some of the concerns that they have,’ ” Reinstein said of the meetings. “What remains to be seen is whether the schools, the universities, are doing anything in response to the FBI briefing, whether they are becoming more vigilant in watching out for what particular researchers are doing, and whether they’re providing information to the FBI.”

"The fact of this program might to some extent chill academic inquiry," Reinstein said.

The two entities -- the FBI and higher education -- do in fact have a formal mechanism for more active collaboration these days. In September 2005, the FBI formed a National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, chaired by Pennsylvania State University President Graham Spanier, with the goal of encouraging outreach. The FBI sought to open a line of communication to discuss homeland security concerns, while the universities would be able to communicate higher education’s cultural norms promoting academic freedom, international collaboration and openness. Any consensus between the two entities about balancing academic values with security concerns could grow increasingly important as stricter regulations and policies promulgated by a number of different agencies in recent years have fostered a more restrictive research environment overall.

“The fact is, there is a whole set of security-related regulations that might apply to universities,” Hardy, of the Council on Governmental Relations, said -- citing export controls and select agent requirements, as well as new Department of Homeland Security regulations on chemical facilities, as just a few examples.

“At some point, probably, it would be advisable to begin to think about the cumulative impacts of all of this and what the effect might be in maintaining the open research environment, which we think is critical, by the way, to our economic competitiveness and national security," Hardy said. Though, "In fairness, having heard and talked to some of the FBI agents, they’re aware too that there are different ways to look at national security, and one of the more critical aspects is to maintain the open campus research environment that has resulted in so much technological progress and advance in this country.”

"Our dialogue with government agencies has been most fruitful on topics such as animal rights and ecoterrorism, the importance of foreign students to our educational institutions, potential compromises of our computer systems, potential new sources of research funding, export policy, and a host of other topics," Spanier, the chair of the FBI's higher education advisory board, said via e-mail Tuesday. Spanier said he was pleased to see the FBI reaching out to universities when it comes to the protection of intellectual property, counterterrorism and cybersecurity.

"Clearly, in the end," Spanier said, "we need an appropriate balance around matters of national security and our cherished values of openness."


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