Studying in the US may have just gotten harder for foreign students attending or hoping to enroll at American colleges and universities.
The Boston Globe reports that the FBI's Boston field office recently issued a warning to all area colleges and universities, advising them to protect any sensitive research from overly inquisitive students. Warren Bamford, the special agent in charge of the office, told the Globe that agents will visit numerous New England colleges in the next few months as part of a national outreach. The office has also offered to brief faculty, students, and security staff on how to spot "espionage indicators."
The Associated Press notes that the FBI's interest in training universities how to spot spies among their student bodies has set off alarm bells among some people concerned that the government might be trying to limit free speech on campus.
John Reinstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, expressed reservations about the program, warning that there could be a chilling effect on students or researchers.
''Are you going to ask all the questions you want to ask if someone is out there taking notes and reporting to the FBI that you asked the question which they perceived as suspicious?'' Reinstein said.
The Boston Herald notes that Mr. Bamford says the government is not trying to encroach on free speech. Rather, he argues, the agency wants to ensure that universities know how to protect their potentially sensitive research.
"It's to make sure these institutions receive training . . . (on) what spies look for," Bamford said during a meeting with the Herald yesterday. "There are hundreds of projects going on that could be useful to a foreign power."
Bamford stressed that the agency is not looking to censor universities or stop them from posting research results online, but wants to raise awareness of the possibility of terrorist exploitation of information.
A key question is how receptive institutions of higher learning will be to the offer. Among universities in the Boston area, few reported immediate plans to change as a result of the warning, reports Boston Now.
Tufts University spokeswoman Kim Thurler said there has been no additional outreach from the FBI beyond the established communications loop.
Boston, Harvard, and Northeastern universities, as well as MIT, declined to comment. One BU spokesman said he did not want to draw attention to the university.
In contrast, the president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Dennis D. Berkey, said he "welcomed the advice about protecting [the school's] unpublished research," and Boston College spokesman Kevin Shea said BC would probably follow some of the FBI's advice.
Despite WPI's apparent enthusiasm, Mr. Berkey told The Boston Globe that the school would likely not need the FBI to train its faculty as it was already "well versed in how to protect its research."
The Boston Globe also reported that Lucia Ziobro of the FBI's counterintelligence branch in Boston, said, "We're not out there to recruit people and place spies in the academic setting."
She said that the agency would like colleges to report any serious concerns to their campus security, local police, or the FBI, but that the program's goal is "to get ahead of the curve on counter-proliferation and espionage . . . [and] to give some real useful information to universities."
Erik J. Dahl, a counterintelligence specialist and research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said, "I don't think there's anything wrong with the FBI or other elements of the government reaching out to academia."
But he voiced doubts about how successful it would be in uncovering plots. "It just doesn't seem likely that a foreign terrorist or a homegrown terrorist would be getting tips for his next plot on a university campus."