FBI, Education Department Tapped Student Aid Records in Terrorism Probe

WASHINGTON
Searching for terrorists, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Education’s investigative arm have secretly vetted people applying for college aid, documents show.

The goal of “Project Strike Back” was to determine if terrorism suspects, through identity theft or other means, illegally obtained college aid to finance their operations. The data-mining project was first disclosed by the Medill School of Journalism.

The secret effort began right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The program was shut down this June, according to documents obtained through Medill’s Freedom of Information Act request.

Under the program, the FBI gave names to the Education Department’s Office of Inspector General, which ran them through databases of millions of financial aid applications to determine if student aid had been sought or obtained.

Fewer than 1,000 names were checked against the databases, says Cathy Milhoan, spokeswoman for the FBI.

“In the post 9/11 world, it’s the job of the FBI to connect the dots and follow our investigation wherever it leads us,” she says. “We appreciate the effort of everyone — the Department of Education, the IG, and every other citizen out there that’s helped us.”

She adds that the data-mining is legal and limited: “We’re not out there arbitrarily pulling citizens’ information. We do it in accordance with the law.”

Medill’s disclosure of the review of students’ records is the latest revelation in a broad and controversial effort by the Bush administration to mine data. Advocates say the work is aimed at saving lives.

But critics have accused the administration of overstepping its bounds by authorizing warrantless surveillance on some international phone calls, collecting telephone records on Americans and accessing an international database of financial information.

“This is going to be quite an unwelcome surprise to college students and their families,” says Dr. Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education.

Hartle says law enforcement owes the public an explanation.

“If it’s a carefully designed, targeted initiative that really goes after people the government is concerned about, it’s hard to object,” he says. “But it’s another case where we don’t exactly know what the boundaries are of the government’s activities. They have provided very little detail about who is being examined. It’s the ambiguity that’s troubling.”

The inspector general also reviewed the records of schools and lenders to determine if the federal financial aid program has been defrauded, according to documents. Any details developed were to be turned over to the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Associated Press

 

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