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Is MIT a Security Risk?

International students may head for more welcoming countries as U.S. strategies to deter terrorism ramp up at educational institutions such as MIT.

In the middle of last December, Bilal Zuberi, a doctoral candidate in physical chemistry, spent three hours waiting in line at the John F. Kennedy Building in downtown Boston. A citizen of Pakistan, Zuberi was adhering to new regulations governing certain international students that required him to register with the immigration bureau, have his fingerprints and photograph taken, and be interviewed by an immigration services agent. He had all his official documents in order but was apprehensive. Early reports from California indicated that hundreds of foreign students there had been detained during the same process. Would he be, too? Was this truly just part of a bureaucratic tracking system, or was it an FBI interview in disguise? What kind of questions would he be asked? Would he be able to answer quickly and with confidence? Or would he inadvertently raise cautionary flags that would lead to deportation?

Zuberi’s interview lasted about 45 minutes. After all of his anxiety, the agent wanted what Zuberi thought was useless information. What were his parents’ birth dates? When did he buy his cell phone? What was his credit card number? To make matters worse, the assistant entering Zuberi’s information into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, a new federal computerized tracking system for international students and scholars, could not locate the tab key. “It was a bit scary to know that my academic future and stay in this country was entirely in the hands of these people,” he says.

Thousands of male international students and scholars who were born in any of 26 predominantly Muslim countries (see “Special-Registration Countries,” bottom) are reliving Zuberi’s experience nationwide. The mandate for these students to register is part of a new effort by the government to ferret out possible terrorists. (Three of the terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks had entered the country on student visas.) And since January 2003, U.S. educational institutions have been required to enter all foreign nationals into the new tracking system. Sanctioned by the USA Patriot Act passed in 2001 and under a strict deadline from Congress, the tracking system was implemented before it was fully developed and tested. As a result, it crashes frequently, loses data, is painfully slow, and has been publicly labeled a disaster by at least one Washington lawmaker.

In the research arena, the government is also attempting to bolster national security by adding restrictive clauses in contracts for federally funded research, clauses that could limit the dissemination of results or require preapproval of international researchers who want to work on specific projects (see “Biotech’s Big Chill). And as part of the newly enacted Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Act, tight controls are being placed on a host of biological agents and toxins-some widely used in research-that could potentially be used in bioterrorist attacks. In addition, students from countries considered by the U.S. to sponsor terrorism (see “Special-Registration Countries,” bottom) are barred from working in labs where any of the agents and toxins are present.

But while such strategies may help deter terrorism, they may also have adverse effects on institutions like MIT. Today, 37 percent of MIT’s graduate students and 9 percent of its undergraduates come from abroad. Under the slew of recent laws and presidential directives, these students and potential new ones could face delayed approval or even denial of their visas. The penalties for violating either act are stiff, including immediate deportation, heavy fines, and even criminal prosecution. These facts have increased anxiety among faculty and students on campus. There is concern that faculty will stop staffing their labs with graduate students and postdoctoral scholars from countries that have a history of significant delays or a high incidence of denials. And as security increases, says Provost Robert Brown, international students may head for more welcoming countries. “If the top talent in the world starts shying away from MIT,” he says, “our impact on science and technology will decrease.”

While universities’ representatives around the country are echoing Brown’s sentiment, Washington still sees two sides to the story, says Jack Crowley, MIT vice president for federal relations. “There are folks in the executive branch and Congress who are sensitive to how quickly we could lose something of value if we become less open, but there are others who say we’ll do whatever it takes to make us secure.” Finding the delicate balance between these two perspectives will eventually determine the future of our educational system.

Special-Registration Countries
Males between the ages of 18 and 45 who are citizens of these countries or were born in them but now live elsewhere must be fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed by U.S. immigration agents before their entry visas will be granted. Many registrants may have their applications referred to Washington, DC, for security reviews, which may delay their visas for months or result in application denials.
AlgeriaIraq*North Korea*Syria*
BangladeshKuwaitPakistanUnited Arab Emirates
EritreaLibya*Saudi Arabia
* U.S.-designated state sponsors of terrorism (includes Cuba)

Now educational institutions must use the system to report and track all foreign nationals and their dependents while they are on campus-and potentially for up to three years after they leave, if they remain in the United States. If not registered in the system by August 1, 2003, a foreign student can fall out of status as a legal nonimmigrant. After August 1, institutions must register each new arrival within 30 days of his or her registration on campus. One of the most troubling new requirements, some say, is the reporting of medical leaves. Such reports do not need to go into specifics, but administrators are concerned that their very existence could violate privacy and raise doubts among officials processing future visa renewal applications, especially where leave was granted for mental-health reasons.

The tracking system, which is supposed to link all educational institutions, consulates, and embassies around the world, has been fraught with problems from the start. David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, detailed some of the more vexing issues in his testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science last March. For example, even correctly entered information can remain inaccessible to consulates and embassies for up to 10 days, and immigration documents requested by one school often print out at another, he said. At MIT, Guichard-Ashbrook says that even when the system reports the successful submission of new data, many times the information has not been registered, and the computer prints out blank documents. And according to Penny Rosser, director of the International Scholars Office, the software has prevented her from extending visas, which is permitted by the regulations.

Another early failing of the system is the unavailability of batch processing, which would allow the university to upload student records directly from its own databases. But as of this writing, administrators still have to reenter data into the tracking system manually. Since fewer than 10 MIT employees have security clearance to use the system, reporting nearly 4,500 foreign nationals plus their dependents is daunting. “It’s a work in progress,” Guichard-Ashbrook says. “We were mandated to use a system that isn’t working, and that’s pretty harsh.”

The stakes are high for students and scholars as well as for the Institute. With deadlines now set for reporting and updating information, Guichard-Ashbrook is concerned that some students may simply lose track of time and fall out of official status. The penalty could be immediate deportation, and MIT could lose its ability to accept international students or bring international scholars and faculty to the Institute in the future.

Securing Research

Caution is also evident in the government’s attitude toward university research. Although there is not yet any clear shift in federal policy about unclassified research, restrictive clauses have been cropping up in government funding contracts with increasing frequency. Most of the restrictions involve limitations on the publication of research results and demands for prior approval of foreign nationals who might work on research projects. Such clauses, says Brown, create “a shade of gray between the classified and unclassified world not easily dealt with.”

The new publication restrictions strike at the heart of university science. Typically, universities conduct what’s called fundamental research. National Security Decision Directive 189, from 1985, defines this-in contrast to classified research-as work “the results of which ordinarily are published and shared broadly within the scientific community.” The directive states that restrictions cannot be placed upon the dissemination of fundamental-research results, but only on results from classified projects. It also calls for funding agencies to determine if a research project should be classified prior to awarding a contract. In 2001, Condoleeza Rice, assistant to the president for national-security affairs, reaffirmed that the directive is in force. But Julie Norris, who as director of the Office of Sponsored Programs is responsible for negotiating all research awards that MIT accepts, expects that restrictive clauses will only increase.

“We have spent more time in the last year on restrictions or attempts at restrictions than we have in the 10 years before that,” says Norris. As a matter of policy, the Institute does not allow classified research on campus and will not accept publication or personnel restrictions in any funding contract from any source. And so, though some universities have already accepted contracts with the new clauses, MIT has not. The issue is one of national significance, says Alice Gast, vice president for research and associate provost of the Institute. “As you try to cordon off areas of research and who can do the research, you start to make that area less attractive to bright people, who will move into different directions,” she says. “I think it’s critically important for the country and for MIT to find a way to pursue open and fundamental research that will feed into other more applied research that can be classified.”

Given the national political climate, it’s probable that some portion of what would have been fundamental research will become classified in the future. According to Norris, that has universities across the country considering whether they should amend their policies and accept classified contracts on their campuses. MIT, however, is not among them.

One Exception

MIT does accept research restrictions in one area, but only because the law now requires it to. The bioterrorism preparedness act, which will be fully implemented in November, restricts the use of some 50 biological agents and toxins-all deemed significant threats to public health-to those who receive government security clearance. The law also governs the transfer and receipt of the agents and toxins, requires secured labs, regulates the disposal of materials, and mandates special training and record keeping in labs where any of the specified agents are used and where the volume of the toxins exceeds a given limit.

Regulating these agents is “the prudent thing to do,” says David Schauer, an associate professor of biological engineering who does research on infectious diseases. But he’s also concerned because the regulations are vague and their implementation unclear. “Hopefully the regulations will be based on real scientific risks, not knee-jerk responses to political events.”

Researchers already follow safety protocols when they work with hazardous biological materials, but they are not used to working under laws that are enforcement oriented. Jamie Lewis Keith, MIT’s senior counsel and managing director for environmental programs and risk management, cautions that the Justice Department is taking the law very seriously and will prosecute people even for honest mistakes. “I think everyone agrees that particularly dangerous biological materials need to be kept out of the hands of people who would use them for bad purposes,” she says, “but it’s important that research go forward to advance medicine and the understanding of biology, and there’s a real conflict between those two objectives.”

The new bioterrorism law does not pose much of a problem for MIT yet. Only a few graduate students, Brown says, will be affected by the rule prohibiting foreign nationals from working with the listed agents and toxins. A handful of labs do use restricted toxins, but all of them are in volumes under the threshold that triggers restrictions. Claudia Mickelson, the Institute’s biosafety officer, is making sure things stay that way by tracking the amount of toxins each lab uses. And only one laboratory at MIT will use a biological agent that requires security. That lab is under construction and will be operational by the November compliance deadline. The Institute’s biggest concern, according to Gast, is that the list of agents and toxins could be expanded at any time and without warning.

Climate on Campus

Outside of the labs and classrooms, international students at MIT remain anxious and stressed, says Sanith Wijesinghe, SM ‘98, a doctoral candidate in aeronautics and astronautics. He says the international community at MIT is under a higher level of scrutiny than in the past. According to Guichard-Ashbrook, FBI agents have been on campus interviewing students. And, Wijesinghe says, many students will not attend community meetings because they are afraid their public remarks could trigger FBI interviews. “It feels like a police state,” he says.

Meanwhile, approval of visa applications has slowed to a crawl. More incoming students are being subjected to security reviews initiated by officials in consulates and embassies. Many foreign nationals who already have valid visas are getting stuck abroad because of the new regulations. Others, including Wijesinghe, are foregoing international conferences or visits to their homes because they are afraid lengthy security reviews could delay their return or deny them reentry altogether.

Zuberi took the risk of being stuck abroad last spring and went to Mexico City as part of a team working to reduce the city’s air pollution. He came harrowingly close to being deported on his return because he had failed to undergo an exit interview at Logan Airport. In fact, Zuberi had tried for hours to locate an official to conduct the interview, but to no avail. With the airline’s assurance that he would be interviewed in Newark if necessary, Zuberi went ahead with his travel plans. But while in Mexico, he heard of another Pakistani’s deportation for having missed an exit interview, so he contacted a Boston lawyer for advice. He was thus prepared for the three-hour interrogation he later faced, but not for the aggressive manner in which it was conducted.

“I was treated like I had committed a crime,” Zuberi says. Eventually his case was referred to a senior immigration official who approved his reentry with the admonishment that another broken immigration law could bar him from the country permanently. When he reached Logan, he discovered his luggage had been opened, the contents tousled, and several items removed.

“These small acts are difficult to deal with, and after a while you begin to wonder what you’re doing here,” he says.

Which is exactly what dismays administrators. As security continues to tighten, there’s a very legitimate fear that it will alter the character of U.S. higher education, diminish the quality of its research, and quite possibly erode its global preeminence in the decades to come.

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