updated 8/31/2006 9:58:21 PM ET 2006-09-01T01:58:21

For the past five years an office in the Education Department has scanned through its databases of millions of students' federal financial aid and college enrollment records in search of terrorist names supplied by the FBI.

The effort, dubbed "Project Strike Back," was created by the Education Department's Office of Inspector General after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to expand the office's mission to include counterterrorism.

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

"This program was one of many around the country used by the FBI to identify people of potential interest," said FBI spokeswoman Cathy Milhoan.

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 fewer than 1,000 names that the bureau considered suspicious to run through its databases, said bureau spokeswoman Cathy Milhoan. The bureau made requests as recently as February 2006.

Education agents sought ‘anomalies’
In response to the requests, department agents would look for "anomalies" in the data and share the information with the FBI and Justice Department attorneys, according to a Government Accountability Office report and a letter from an Education Department Office of Inspector General special agent to the assistant inspector general for investigations.

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

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

Mary Mitchelson, counsel to the inspector general, said it was ended because agents had spent less than 50 hours in the last four years on the project.

FAFSA form requires detailed information
Much of the personal information gathered came from the form many students file each year seeking financial aid, called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, according to an e-mail from Catherine Grant, spokeswoman for the IG's office.

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 UC 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."

Effectiveness unclear
Jim Harper, a scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute who advises the Department of Homeland Security on privacy issues as a member of the Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee, said his panel asks a series of questions when evaluating a program that uses personal information.

"The No. 1 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," said Grant.

The FBI declined to comment on whether any official investigations resulted from giving the Education Department potential terrorist's names, a bureau spokeswoman said.

During the nearly five years the data-mining program was in effect, the Education Department did not refer any terrorism cases to the Justice Department for prosecution, according to a comprehensive database of federal case referrals maintained by Syracuse University.

It is unclear whether the Education Department is still mining and sharing student information with the FBI. Grant said the Education Department does not confirm or deny the existence of "any particular investigative activity."

The data-sharing relationship between the department and the FBI may have been a useful way to "develop intelligence on a student" before there was enough evidence of wrongdoing to get a subpoena, said FBI special agent Michael Gneckow, who said he was unaware of the project. Gneckow investigated many students during the course of a high-profile terrorism case at the University of Idaho in 2003. The case ended with a jury acquitting a University of Idaho graduate student of terrorism charges that stemmed from his maintenance of Islamic Web sites. Gneckow said the school adhered to federal law and required him to subpoena students' personal records.

The student-record privacy law that requires the FBI to obtain court orders before accessing school records was passed in 1974. It was intended to address the "growing evidence of the abuse of student records across the nation," the bill's sponsor, Sen. James Buckley, a member of the Conservative Party of New York State, said at the time.

Court order required?
Under current law, if an FBI agent wants copies of FAFSA records from a school, a court order is required.

"They'd have to have a piece of paper in their hands," said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

It is unclear if the Education Department must comply with the law the same way a school must, said several legal experts, including former Education Department General Counsel Judith Winston.

Addressing the concerns of students such as Thompson who, like millions of others, have personal and financial information in the department's databases, Michael Deshields, the deputy inspector general who oversaw the data-mining program, downplayed the operation, saying the operation's title carries more bark than bite.

"We always have some nice, sexy title," Deshields said in June, 10 days before the program was canceled. "Strike Back is not mass sharing of people's personal information."

Records system expanded
The department's Office of Inspector General has already expanded its records system to include more electronic information, such as photos, scanned documents and audio and video from its investigations.

And a draft report from the secretary of education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education envisions a database that would track individual students' enrollment, performance and financial aid information for years, through college and beyond to ensure greater accountability from colleges and universities that receive substantial federal grants.

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities firmly opposes such a database.

"I find it hard to believe that so many would walk so casually into an Orwellian world in which some all-seeing eye is tracking what each of our citizens is reading and studying," said David Warren, the president of the higher education association.

"What's happened to a nation that's prized the freedom of the individual?"

The joint effort with the FBI was just one of 24 data mining initiatives run by the Education Department, which ranks fourth out of all federal agencies in terms of the number of data mining programs it runs, according to a 2004 survey by the Government Accountability Office, Congress' auditing branch.

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