FBI and Universities Unite to Fight Terror

The FBI is concerned that the open environment at U.S. universities makes it child's play for political or corporate spies to steal U.S. research. The relationship between the FBI and universities has traditionally been strained, but the fight against terrorism creates new bedfellows.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The department that Mukasey wants to lead is working to guard against terrorism in more and more places, and one effort focuses on universities.

For some time now, the FBI has been concerned that the open environment at American universities makes it easy for political or corporate spies to steal U.S. research.

The relationship between the FBI and universities is traditionally strained, but not when it comes to a hunt for terrorists in search of information.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The relationship between the FBI and the country's universities has been strained since the 1960s. That's when it became clear that agents were building dossiers on anti-war protesters.

The current FBI director, Robert Mueller, says he wants to change all that. And as part of that effort, he has created a special advisory board of college presidents to discuss everything from campus security to counterterrorism and espionage.

Mr. ROBERT MUELLER (FBI Director): We knew it would not be necessarily an easy sell because of the perceived tension between law enforcement and academia.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's FBI Director Mueller speaking at Penn State yesterday. He was on the dais with Penn State's President Graham Spanier. Spanier leads the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, a committee of 20 school presidents that now works with the FBI.

Mr. MUELLER: But once we've briefed President Spanier on the national security threats that impact all of you here at Penn State and at other universities, it became clear to all of us why this partnership is so important.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Mueller made the case that terrorism has changed the landscape. Now campus presidents and chancellors are having to think once again like cold warriors. What would happen if one of the professors or students at one of this country's top research universities wasn't just there to study or to teach but wanted to spy or steal secrets or recruit? Penn State President Spanier says...

Dr. GRAHAM SPANIER (President, Pennsylvania State University): Not everyone who wants to get their hands on an early research discovery wants it for reasons that the researcher might feel is appropriate. You worry about the few who might be there for a different reason. And while it's not a large number of people on any campus, it's something that university presidents need to be a little more sensitive to.

TEMPLE-RASTON: As the FBI sees it, some of the nation's most innovative ideas, from computer applications to biochemistry, are coming out of the nation's universities. And that needs to be protected.

John Slatter(ph) is with the FBI's counterterrorism unit.

Mr. JOHN SLATTER (FBI): Some of these collectors have been successful, and even if it's in the piecemeal fashion, acquiring bits and pieces of technology or the research behind it, taking it back home and putting it to use.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Mueller said the concern is that pre-classified, pre-patent technologies that universities typically work on will fall into the wrong hands because universities are so open.

Mr. MUELLER: And it is certainly not our intent to interfere in any way with the academic environment, but we must remain alert to the threats we all face and we must learn to balance openness with awareness.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Spanier said the FBI board is hoping the FBI and other government agencies understand how to strike that balance.

Dr. SPANIER: I think our board has been very helpful in creating an understanding in governmental agencies that the mind of a faculty member, the mind of a researcher, is oriented towards openness. But with that openness has to come a certain level of awareness.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Given the history, it isn't surprising that university leaders are still a little wary of the FBI's intentions. Spanier says he often makes introductions to other university officials essentially saying these guys are with me and vouching for the FBI and particular investigative projects. The fact that Spanier still feels the need to do that indicates the FBI's involvement on campuses is still viewed with a certain amount of suspicion.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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Correction Nov. 8, 2007

Early versions of the radio story mistakenly identified the former FBI director. His name is J. Edgar Hoover.

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