Terror probe reaches nation's campuses
By Kevin Drew
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- As the investigation into the September 11 terrorist attacks continues, U.S. federal authorities have moved part of their probe onto the nation's campuses.
The dragnet has placed increased scrutiny on the more than half million international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities. More than 200 universities have turned over personal information about international students to the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The attention on the nation's campuses came after it was learned that at least one of the 19 alleged hijackers in the September 11 attacks had entered the United States on a student visa and never attended classes.
A spokeswoman for the FBI refused to comment on the nature of the investigation on the college campuses, which has sought both public and confidential information about students.
The issue, however, has raised concerns with student organizations, civil libertarians and universities handing over the data.
"This is an overly broad response," said Corye Barbour, legislative director of the United States Student Association. "Student privacy has clearly been compromised."
Campuses across country turn over data
Approximately 220 U.S. colleges and universities have turned over information about their international students, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).
In Bloomington, Indiana, officials at Indiana University turned over the names of "hundreds" of international students to federal investigators, said university spokesman Richard Doty. The information covered a five-year period of students enrolled in courses of English as a second language, Doty said.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported earlier in October that at least five Minnesota colleges and universities have released student information to federal authorities. At least three California State University campuses have turned over data, the Sacramento Bee reported.
In its survey of colleges and universities, AACRAO examined how many universities have been queried, what type of information federal investigators sought and what data were provided.
Authorities asked about student visas and what type of programs they were enrolled in. The two types of student visas scrutinized are F1, the traditional international student visa, and J1, the international scholar exchange category.
Nassirian said AACRAO also found that in 34 instances, government investigators sought information about enrollment in specific courses. The "vast majority" of those cases dealt with inquiries into flight courses, Nassirian said.
Public and private information
Public information such as names, addresses and telephone numbers is easily accessible.
But U.S. federal law protects certain information, including student academic records, Social Security numbers, financial aid data, course schedules and grades. The law requires that investigators must normally present a subpoena to obtain such confidential information.
Students typically must be notified when their information is disclosed, unless a subpoena bars doing so. For international students, however, regulators require schools to provide some records to the INS on request, whether students consent or not.
A clause allows federal agencies to obtain information in the case of a medical or safety emergency. The U.S. government has invoked the clause as it pursues the investigation.
Legislation being considered to track international students
Tracking individuals traveling with visas once they are in the United States, or when they leave, is difficult for the INS. Tracking non-immigrants is especially difficult -- the INS has complained of outdated computers and too few investigators.
Congress is considering legislation that would place tighter controls on non-immigrant visitors, as well as international students studying in the United States.
For example, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Missouri) recently introduced legislation that would ask the attorney general to implement a tracking system for non-immigrant visitors wishing to enter the country. The bill would:
-- Seek a 30-day waiting period for all visa applicants to ensure enough time for background checks.
-- Install the latest technology in biometrics for fingerprint and retina scanning.
-- Increase funding for the computerized entry-and-exit visa system to improve tracking.
Worries about welfare of students
The investigation, coupled with congressional proposals to tighten monitoring, has raised concern and created conflict for those who deal with international students.
At Indiana University, school officials consulted with their legal department before releasing information, school spokesman Doty said.
"On one hand, we want to comply with federal agencies," he said. "On the other hand, we want to balance the privacy of students."
Barbour of the United States Students Association said she is concerned the Department of Education has misinterpreted the clause allowing the release of student information. The clause has been more commonly invoked when the health and safety of a student was at risk.
Barbour said she also is concerned that the current national mood following the September attacks is dangerous.
"There's been a web of suspicion cast over international students," she said. "It worries us."
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