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Education College data sifted for terrorists

Laura Mcgann | the Associated Press | September 3 2006

WASHINGTON -- For the past five years, the FBI and the Education Department secretly scrutinized tens of millions of federal-financial-aid and college-enrollment records in search of terrorists.

The effort, dubbed "Project Strike Back," was created by the department's Office of Inspector General. After Sept. 11, 2001, its main mission of agency oversight and loan-fraud investigations was expanded to include counterterrorism work.

At the time, investigators thought some funding for the 9-11 attacks came from identity theft and fraud, criminal activity the Education Department had experience investigating, according to a still-secret memo obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The department's central database stores information on all of the roughly 14 million students who apply for financial aid each year, even after they have repaid the loans.

To search for "potential terrorist activity," the FBI gave the department what the bureau considered suspicious names to run through its databases, bureau spokeswoman Cathy Milhoan said. The bureau made requests as recently as February.

In response to the requests, department agents would look for "anomalies" in the data and share the information with the FBI and Justice Department, according to a letter from an Education Department special agent to the assistant inspector general for investigations.

They found and shared personal information including names, addresses, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and drivers-license numbers, according to an agency document recounted by a government official familiar with the data-mining program.

The joint venture abruptly ended this summer, 10 days after reporters from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism interviewed the special agent who oversaw the data-mining program.

The Education Department memo obtained through the FOIA request said the program ended June 16, but the reason was among the memo's blacked-out items or was never included. A department spokeswoman, Catherine Grant, would not comment on why the program was canceled.

Much of the personal information came from the form millions of families file each year seeking financial aid, called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, Grant said in an e-mail.

For most undergraduates, FAFSA requires detailed descriptions of their parents' personal and financial information, their Social Security numbers, tax returns, savings, investments and business assets.

FAFSA's online privacy statement says information may be shared with other agencies for "routine uses," including disclosure to law enforcement.

Many students are unaware of this.

"The first thing that comes to mind with a system like this is the word 'scary,' " said Rebecca Thompson, legislative director of the country's largest student-advocacy group, the United States Student Association.

Thompson filed for financial aid every year she attended the University of Northern Michigan. She did not know the Education Department ran terrorist suspects' information against her own.

"All we know is that we are filling out this form to get financial aid," she said. "It's scary that in the name of the war on terror our personal information can be used for things that have nothing to do with higher education."

Rob Glushko, a law student at the University of California, Berkeley, said he is leery of an invasive program that has the potential to affect millions of students with no relationship to terrorism and leaves out only the wealthiest students who do not need financial aid.

"I'm being investigated for the potential crime of being a student," Glushko said. "It makes me uncomfortable, and I wonder what purpose it serves."

Jim Harper, a scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute who advises the Department of Homeland Security on privacy issues, said his panel asks a series of questions when evaluating a program that uses personal information.

"The number-one question we came across was to ask the question, 'Does it work?' " Harper said. "Does the program address a genuine threat directly?"

It is unclear how effective the data mining was in rooting out potential terrorists.

"We cannot address whether any specific FBI cases resulted from the data we provided," department spokeswoman Grant said.

The FBI would not comment on whether any official investigations resulted from giving the Education Department potential terrorist's names, a bureau spokeswoman said.

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