Survey Reports Scientists 'Suspicious' Of FBI The agency may need an image makeover if it wants the expertise and cooperation of the nation's top researchers. According to the report, members of the scientific community would rather discuss their work with total strangers than an FBI agent.
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Survey Reports Scientists 'Suspicious' Of FBI

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Survey Reports Scientists 'Suspicious' Of FBI

Survey Reports Scientists 'Suspicious' Of FBI

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This is Morning Edition from NPR News. And I'm Renee Montagne, and welcome Linda.


Thank you very much. I'm Linda Wertheimer. The FBI is preparing to close its case against army scientist Bruce Ivans. The bureau says Ivans was behind the 2001 anthrax killings. That case highlighted the sometimes tense relationship between the FBI and the scientific community. Ivans killed himself; Some of his colleges blamed the FBI for hounding him.

The FBI says it needs the help of the scientific community, so the bureau worked with the Federation of American Scientists recently to survey scientists and share the results with NPR. The survey is the first of its kind. It found the FBI is facing an uphill battle. David Kestenbaum has our report.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Imagine you're a scientist working with your test tubes or whatever when a black SUV pulls up. Men wearing suits with guns on their belts get out, and they want to talk to you.

MICHAEL STEBBINS (Biologist, Federation of American Scientists): Naturally, when - if you're a scientist and an FBI agent shows up at your door your first response is, of course, going to be - you know, shock and fear.

KESTENBAUM: Michael Stebbins is a biologist with the Federation of American Scientists. He helped plan the survey. And even though he knows that's probably people's first reaction, he was surprised at the answers some scientists gave in the survey. Just so you know, the survey was conducted while the anthrax investigation was still going on.

One question asked scientists how they would feel about discussing their research with, say, the general public? No problem, 87 percent said yes. But with law enforcement only about 35 percent said yes, from 87 percent down to 35 percent.

STEBBINS: So that means that they would rather talk to a total strange from the general public than an FBI agent about their research.

KESTENBAUM: Surprising, given that the FBI agents are supposed to be the good guys.

STEBBINS: 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 every time they walk in, that the person that they're going to be talking to might not want to talk to them.

KESTENBAUM: The survey tried to find out why scientists felt that way. Stebbins says the answers indicate a big gulf. Scientists don't really have a good idea what the FBI actually does.

STEBBINS: There was an unhealthy level of paranoia in the scientific community, where some people in the scientific community felt that the FBI would inhibit their ability to do their work, or would be interested in classifying their research, or would want to read their personal emails.

KESTENBAUM: Which the FBI say it is is not interested in doing. The survey doesn't show that the FBI is necessarily doing anything wrong. Stebbins applauds the FBI for doing the survey and agreeing to make the results public.

STEBBINS: And they deserve a tremendous amount of credit. That's an unusual thing to do for a federal agency.

KESTENBAUM: The FBI did want to talk about the results, and when you go to FBI headquarters you can see why first-time visitors might be a little nervous. The guards at the front desk sit behind super thick bullet-proof glass. Then you walk through turnstiles that look like Star Trek teleporters, but inside are offices with normal-looking cubicles.

Daniel Cloyd is Assistant Director for Counterintelligence at the FBI. He had so many points he wanted to make he'd written them down and put them in a binder to read. I think the take-home message to scientists with reservations is, get to know us. We need your help, and we're not what you think.

Mr. DANIEL CLOYD (Assistant Director, FBI Counterintelligence): Public perceptions of the FBI too often constitute only a pale reflection of reality.

KESTENBAUM: Do you actually feel misunderstood a lot of the time?

Mr. CLOYD: If you watch television, or if you see too many movies, in movies we either are supermen and women who can do no wrong, or else we're seen as stumbling and bumbling fools and as people who can do nothing right.

KESTENBAUM: If scientists are maybe overly critical of the FBI, it's also true that the FBI makes mistakes. In the anthrax investigation, it initially focused on bio-weapons expert Steven Hatfill. Hatfill later sued saying the security had ruined his life and won a $5.8 million settlement. So it may be incidents like that that make some scientists nervous.

Vahid Majidi is the Assistant Director of Weapons of Mass Destruction at the FBI, but he used to be a chemistry professor. He says the survey results, in some respects, are not a surprise. Polls of the general public show similar results.

Mr. VAHID MAJIDI (Assistant Director, Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, FBI): What was a little bit frustrating for me is that the survey went out to roughly about 11,000 people, and only about 10 percent of the individuals that received the survey responded back.

KESTENBAUM: The FBI is working on ways to reach out to scientists, but there may always be some tension. In the anthrax case, scientists helped the FBI trace the spores. They were collaborators, but they were also, of course, possible suspects. David Kestenbaum. NPR News.

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