Federal authorities have begun enlisting campus police officers in the domestic war on terror, renewing fears among some faculty and student groups of overzealous FBI spying at colleges and universities that led to scandals in decades past.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the FBI has strengthened or established working relationships with hundreds of campus police departments, in part to gain better access to insular communities of Middle Eastern students, government officials said.
On at least a dozen campuses, the FBI has included collegiate police officers as members of local Joint Terrorism Task Forces, the regional entities that oversee counterterrorism investigations nationwide.
Some officers have been given federal security clearance, which allows them access to classified information. Their supervisors often do not know which cases these officers are working on because details cannot be shared, officials said.
The FBI and many campus police officers view the arrangements as a logical, effective way to help monitor potential terrorist threats and keep better tabs on the more than 200,000 foreign nationals studying in the United States. Several of the Sept. 11 hijackers were enrolled as students at American flight schools, and one entered the country on a student visa but never showed up at the school.
"Campus law enforcement is starting to get a lot more recognition from the FBI and other federal agencies now, because they're realizing we do have police departments and we can play a vital role in stopping terrorism," said H. Scott Doner, police chief at Valdosta State University in Georgia and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. "Everybody's got to have their eyes and ears open to make sure something doesn't happen again."
But the effort has touched a nerve among some faculty and student groups, as well as Muslim activists, who fear that the government is inching toward the kind of controversial spying tactics it used in the 1950s and 1960s. With few restrictions, the FBI at the time aggressively monitored, and often harassed, political groups, student activists and dissidents.
Faculty leaders and administrators argue that U.S. colleges and universities are unique places devoted to the exchange of ideas, and that even the hint of surveillance by government authorities taints that environment.
"This type of cooperation is perfectly valid if it's based on criminal activity, but the danger with the FBI is that it doesn't always limit itself to that," said Sarah Eltantawi, spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. "Given the FBI's history, there's a definite concern that they will go too far."
Closer ties between the FBI and campus police are the latest example of the government's determination to keep better tabs on foreign students and faculty in the United States. The efforts have met resistance at many colleges, which are accustomed to a fair amount of independence from government scrutiny and which often are home to activists suspicious of the FBI.
This month, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is launching a computerized tracking system for all foreign nationals studying in the United States, a program that was stalled for years, in part by university complaints. Some FBI field offices have also asked local universities and colleges for detailed lists of foreign students and faculty, prompting objections from academic groups and several U.S. senators.
"There is a concern on the part of universities to balance on this tightrope in the post-September 11 world," said A. John Bramley, provost at the University of Vermont. "On the one hand, no one wants to do anything that is not entirely supportive of national security. On the other hand, universities are open places that want to encourage dialogue and diversity."
Distrust of the FBI runs high among some faculty who remember the counterculture demonstrations of the 1960s. Under J. Edgar Hoover's 15-year COINTELPRO program, the bureau engaged in broad and questionable tactics aimed at monitoring and disrupting student activist groups.
FBI agents infiltrated leftist antiwar and civil rights groups with informants, tapped into radio frequencies to disrupt protest plans, stole membership rolls and compiled dossiers on student political leaders. The FBI even produced bogus student newspapers, one conservative and one liberal, to spread inaccurate information and sow dissension among student groups. The COINTELPRO program was halted in 1971.
The FBI has long had liaison relationships with police and security departments at some universities, particularly larger institutions with higher crime rates or heavy involvement in sensitive research areas, officials said. But the Sept. 11 attacks prompted the bureau to strengthen its links to local and state police departments, including those on college campuses.
Precise numbers are not available, but FBI estimates and interviews with campus police administrators indicate that at least a dozen departments have assigned officers to play significant roles in FBI anti-terrorism task forces.
The arrangements with the schools vary. At the University of Texas in Dallas, a campus police officer attends monthly task force meetings and is in regular communication with the FBI, but has not participated in active investigations, officials said. In Gainesville, Fla., a University of Florida officer is assigned to work full time alongside FBI agents and state police in terror investigations.
At the University of Toledo, police chief John A. Dauer said that one full-time and one part-time officer are assigned to the FBI terrorism task force based in Cleveland. Although he is not privy to the details of his officers' work with federal agents, Dauer said the arrangement gives him a better handle on possible terrorist threats on campus than he previously had.
"We have a large Arab population between here and Dearborn that they are concerned about, and a considerable international population on campus," Dauer said. "Having the detectives work with them helps us be more proactive in terms of information. Without that, we'd probably have very little information at all."
A similar arrangement has prompted controversy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where an FBI agent and a campus police detective showed up at the office of an Iraqi-born economics professor in November for an interview. The campus detective, Barry Flanders, was assigned to the local FBI task force and was working on federal terrorism investigations at least two days a week.
FBI officials and campus police said they were able to quickly discount the anonymous tip that led to the interview, and professor M.J. Alhabeeb told local media outlets that the meeting was brief and polite.
But the case prompted a wave of protests by students and faculty, who argued that the arrangement gave the FBI the ability to intrude on the privacy rights of foreign nationals. The local American Civil Liberties Union has filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding details about the university's cooperation with the FBI.
"What we know about the FBI in the past is that it has engaged in a whole set of activities against people because they didn't like the views they expressed or the associations they had formed," said Dan Clawson, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts who helped arrange a faculty protest meeting on the topic. "It appears that we are likely to go back to that time. . . . Universities should take a principled stand saying we oppose these activities because they interfere with the free exchange of information and ideas."
University of Massachusetts police chief Barbara O'Connor said the modern FBI operates under tighter restrictions than it did decades ago. Letting one of her officers work alongside the bureau is a sensible way to guard against terrorist threats and to keep the campus involved in federal probes, she said.
"I think we have a responsibility as a major university to contribute to the safety of this region, despite the political pressure that's been brought to bear," O'Connor said. "I understand people's concerns about civil liberties, but this is part of making sure people aren't harming citizens."
Sheldon E. Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said criticism of the FBI's heightened activity on U.S. campuses is overblown.
"Much of the concern expressed at the moment is speculative and anticipatory," he said. "It's ascribing sinister motives to the FBI before anything remotely akin to that has been proven."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company