Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images
A firefighter decontaminates an FBI agent after exiting the American Media building in Boca Raton, Fla., on Oct. 11, 2001, after three people in the building tested positive for anthrax.
A firefighter decontaminates an FBI agent after exiting the American Media building in Boca Raton, Fla., on Oct. 11, 2001, after three people in the building tested positive for anthrax. Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images
Top scientists are "suspicious" of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and reluctant to discuss their work with agents, according to a new survey by the FBI and two professional scientific associations.
The survey results showed that only 35 percent of scientists would share research results with the FBI. By comparison, 87 percent of the scientists said they would discuss their work with the public.
"They would rather talk with a total stranger from the general public than an FBI agent about their research," says Michael Stebbins, the director of biology policy at the Federation of American Scientists. Stebbins helped plan the survey. "That is just shocking to me," he says. "To see that so many of them didn't trust the FBI on a fundamental level really showed that there is an uphill battle that the FBI has to face."
The FBI conducted the survey — the first of its kind — as part of a larger effort to understand what it needs to do to gain the trust and cooperation of the scientific community. Federal investigators say they need the technical expertise of the country's top scientists to tackle urgent issues from cybercrime to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
What's Not To Love About The FBI?
There were some bright spots in the survey for the bureau. When scientists were asked a more general question about their "feelings" toward the FBI, 70 percent were either "warm" or "neutral"; 30 percent felt "cool." Polls show the general public has a slightly more positive view.
And the vast majority of scientists seemed open to helping the FBI under certain circumstances. Just over 90 percent reported that requesting technical expertise in a specific area was a "good or excellent" reason to be consulted by the FBI. Eighty percent said helping with an ongoing investigation would be a "good or excellent" reason to help.
Stebbins is surprised though, by what he sees as an "unhealthy level of paranoia" among scientists. Researchers worried that the FBI would inhibit their ability to conduct research, or would want to classify their work, read their personal e-mails, or ask them to monitor the work of their colleagues.
Scientists reported that agents asked about their international travel and requested that they "spy" on their foreign colleagues, according to the survey results. In one case, a scientist reported a computer was taken and searched.
Why Scientists Might Be Suspicious
The survey did not get at how scientists formed their views, but Stebbins said that the notion of a field agent pulling up to a lab in an SUV, wearing a suit and a gun might make researchers nervous. "Naturally, if you're a scientist, and an FBI agent shows up at your door," Stebbins says, "your first reaction is going to be shock and fear."
Only 15 percent of scientists who responded to the survey had ever had any professional contact with law enforcement agents.
The surveys were sent out from late January to mid-February while the FBI was in the middle of one of its investigations into the 2001 anthrax killings. The seven-year case highlighted the sometimes complex relationship between scientists and law enforcement.
During that case, the FBI needed scientific help to track the anthrax spores, but the same researchers who were helping the bureau were also potential suspects.
The FBI first focused on the wrong person. Then they pursued Bruce Ivins, the army scientist the FBI believes was responsible for the attacks. Ivins committed suicide earlier this year. Some of Ivins' fellow researchers say the FBI pushed him to the breaking point.
The survey went out to nearly 11,000 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. About 12 percent of scientists responded.
Vahid Majidi, who heads the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, isn't surprised by the results. "There is a mysticism that goes with being an agent of the FBI," he says. Taking out your badge "doesn't provide the best icebreaker."
Majidi was a chemistry professor earlier in his career and recalled being nervous the first time he met an agent. FBI headquarters is not the sort of place that puts visitors at ease. The guards at the front desk sit behind unusually thick bulletproof glass, and guests must pass through turnstiles that resemble Star Trek teleporters.
Daniel Cloyd, who runs the FBI's Counterintelligence Division, says misconceptions about law enforcement are widespread.
"In movies, we tend to run the gamut," he says. "We're either supermen and women who can do no wrong, or we're bumbling fools who can do nothing right." Neither is accurate, he adds.
Improving The FBI's Image
The FBI is looking at ways to reach out to the scientific community. It already sends agents, some of whom are scientists, to scientific meetings. Stebbins says a training video is being prepared that will feature researchers talking about why they feel the way they do.
Stebbins praises the FBI for trying to address the problem and for making the survey results public. "They deserve a tremendous amount of credit," he says. "That's an unusual thing to do, for a federal agency."