Update on FBI-College Relations

October 4, 2007

In the two years since the Federal Bureau of Investigation pulled together a panel of university presidents, the 20-person National Security Higher Education Advisory Board has discussed matters ranging from cyber threats to counterterrorism to the Virginia Tech shootings. In a briefing for reporters at FBI headquarters Wednesday, officials involved with the advisory board provided an update as to its activities -- though not surprisingly given the subject, specific details were scarce.

Among the topics the advisory board has taken up:

  • Safeguarding faculty research. While some university researchers are involved with classified research, where the protocols are well-understood, most faculty research is “wide open,” said Pennsylvania State University President Graham B. Spanier, chairman of the board. In an open university culture, Spanier said, faculty members are oriented toward publicizing their work, and publishing it to boot. But John Slattery, deputy assistant director for counterintelligence support at the FBI, said that university partners have been helpful in identifying potentially sensitive research that would benefit from stronger protections. The FBI can then assess whether there’s a threat to such research -- which typically falls outside the more obvious purview of projects the agency might identify on its own -- “or whether there’s something [universities] should be doing to project their own crown jewels,” Slattery said.
  • Cyber security. Spanier cited one instance at an (unnamed) “major university” more than a year ago when a computer breach -- and a “particularly unacceptable breach” at that -- required immediate response. But while Spanier said he has spent some time introducing college leaders to FBI officials in his capacity as chair, when asked the number of times he’s had to make introductions under emergency circumstances, he said he could count the incidents on his fingers. (He didn't indicate whether that would be on one hand or two).
  • The Commerce Department’s “deemed export” rule -- that is, government restrictions that limit the sharing of certain technological information, even through a conversation, to foreign nationals without an export license. After the government proposed ratcheting up export controls a couple years ago, board members expressed concern and the government agreed to review the policy, Spanier said. In addition to receiving the FBI’s input on counterintelligence and counterterrorism issues, the board also exists to advise the FBI on academe’s very specific culture, including its emphasis on academic freedom and openness.

Academics have historically distrusted the FBI and many have watched the cozier relationships between higher education and the agency that have formed since 2001 – including the placement of campus police officers on joint counterterrorism task forces -- with some wariness. Yet, when asked whether he gets flak from faculty for his involvement with the FBI, Spanier said no.

“There’s a different mood on our campuses since 2001,” Spanier said.

"If there is an issue on my campus, I'd like to be the first person to hear about it, not the last," he added of the agency/university cooperation, citing as a few examples issues surrounding visas and immigration and cyber security. "For many of the issues that surround national security, there would be an interest at universities."

At its quarterly meeting in Washington Wednesday, the board heard a “minute-by-minute” analysis of the Virginia Tech shootings from the FBI’s criminal investigative division, and received a report on the Animal Liberation Front in addition to briefings from FBI officials involved with counterintelligence and science and technology. Seven new members were confirmed to the board:

  • Robert Berdahl, president, Association of American Universities
  • Michael Crow, president, Arizona State University
  • David Leebron, president, Rice University
  • G.P. “Bud” Peterson, chancellor, University of Colorado at Boulder
  • John Sexton, president, New York University
  • Lou Anna Simon, president, Michigan State University
  • David Skorton, president, Cornell University

They join presidents from Carnegie Mellon, Iowa State, Johns Hopkins and Pennsylvania State Universities; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the Universities of California at Los Angeles and San Diego, Florida, Maryland at College Park, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin at Madison.

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