THE Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is asking colleges and universities throughout the United States to provide the government with personal information about all non-American students and faculty members, prompting objections from some schools and higher education groups that view the request as illegal.
The FBI says it needs the information to determine whether foreign students or teachers have ties to known or suspected terrorists. FBI and Justice Department officials say the language in anti-terrorism legislation approved after the attacks on Sept 11, 2001, allows schools to provide the data without notifying those involved.
But one prominent higher education group has told its members that providing the information would violate federal law. The Department of Education also indicated in a general advisory last year that some of the information now sought by the FBI cannot be provided without a court order or subpoena.
The conflict has attracted the attention of two Democratic senators, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who wrote in a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft recently that the “legality of this request is not so clear.”
The two, who are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the USA Patriot Act, cited by FBI and Justice Department officials, had been specifically designed to limit government access to student records.
“This law requires both a court order and a showing that the request is specifically tailored to a terrorism investigation,” the senators wrote to Ashcroft. “The FBI request does not appear to fulfill either of these requirements.”
The controversy serves as the latest example of tension between law enforcement and academia since the Sept 11 attacks, which were carried out by hijackers who had taken advantage of lax oversight given to foreign students.
The FBI’s request comes as schools are scrambling to provide similar information to another federal agency, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, which is building a database to track the more than 200,000 non-American students who enrol in US schools each year. But unlike the immigration agency, which is entitled to personal student information under immigration law, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have a limited ability to obtain such information, legal and education specialists said.
In the weeks after the Sept 11 attacks, about 200 colleges acknowledged in a national survey that they had turned over information about foreign students to the FBI, most of the time without a subpoena or court order. But most of those requests were about specific students, and compliance was allowed under emergency provisions of federal privacy laws, officials said.
The letters, sent from FBI field offices, request that schools provide the “names, addresses, telephone numbers, citizenship information, places of birth, dates of birth and any foreign contact information” for teachers and students who are foreign nationals.
The FBI declined to say how many schools had been asked for the information, or how many had provided it. But officials said compliance was voluntary.
“There’s no requirement on the part of the colleges to provide this information,” said an FBI spokesman, Bill Carter. “They don't have to comply.”
Before the Patriot Act took effect, the law governing the privacy of student records, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, allowed schools to provide only “directory information,” such as names, ages and birth dates, to law enforcement officers.
But the law required schools to obtain students’ consent for providing such information without a court order, legal specialists said. – IHT
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