Monday, October 02, 2006

1 + 1 + 1 = Big Brother

By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — A little-known federal program created days after Sept. 11, 2001, examined financial aid records of college students targeted by the FBI in terrorism investigations, but it's unclear whether it netted any terrorists, according to U.S. Education Department documents.
The program, called Project Strike Back, was a joint project of the department and the FBI and was created 10 days after the terrorist attacks, according to the documents from the department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG).
The documents were released to USA TODAY through Freedom of Information Act requests. They were also obtained by a Medill School of Journalism reporter working with the Associated Press.
About 14 million students apply for federal financial aid for college each year, the Education Department says. FBI spokeswoman Catherine Milhoan said the FBI gave the OIG "a small, select list of a couple of hundred names associated with ongoing investigations."
Intelligence has repeatedly indicated terrorists have exploited student-visa and financial-aid programs, and identity theft has been a factor in some student loan frauds, said John Miller, FBI assistant director of public affairs, in a statement Thursday.
The FBI asked the inspector general's office "to run names of subjects already material to counter-terrorism investigations against the databases to look for evidence of either student loan fraud or identity theft," Miller said. "No records of people other than those already under investigation were called for. This was not a sweeping program, in that it involved only a few hundred names."
Milhoan said Project Strike Back "was one of many utilized by the FBI to identify potential people of interest. In the post-9/11 world, it's the job of the FBI to connect the dots and follow our investigations where they lead us. We continue to do that while adhering to FBI guidelines, Department of Justice regulations and most importantly in accordance with the United States Constitution."
Concerns sparked program
The program was created, at least in part, because Bush administration officials believed that terrorists were trying to obtain money "from criminal activity such as identity theft and credit card fraud," according to one memo.
The inspector general's office investigates cases of fraud, waste and abuse in federal education programs, including student loans.
Under the program, the FBI provided the department with names of targets of FBI terrorism investigations. The department reviewed its records to determine if the students received or applied for federal aid or if the loan program had been defrauded, according to an OIG statement.
"Details developed during this project will be disclosed to the FBI and Justice Department attorneys," noted a Sept. 24, 2001, memo from Don Reid, the assistant inspector general for investigations to a Boston-based OIG special agent.
The memo notes that the FBI gave names to the OIG on Sept. 24, 2001, only three days after Project Strike Back was initiated — and 13 days after the Sept. 11 attacks. The names, however, were redacted in the memo. The other inspector general office memos, dated April 2003 and February 2006, noted the OIG was continuing the program, but most descriptive information was redacted.
According to a June 16 memo, the department said it ended Project Strike Back that month. About 10 days earlier, reporters in Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism interviewed the special agent who oversaw the program.
Mary Mitchelson, the counsel for the inspector general's office, said the program was closed because FBI requests had been dwindling since the effort's first year.
"We closed it because there really was no reason to keep it open," she said.
Mitchelson would not comment on whether the program netted any terrorists or suspects, nor how many names the department turned over to the FBI. She said the requests were legal because law enforcement agencies can seek an exemption to the Privacy Act, which governs student data held by the federal government.
The FBI's Milhoan said the program was not an attempt by the agency to do an end-run around the law. "That's not our job," she said. "Our job in the FBI is to uphold the law."
Katherine McLane, an Education Department spokeswoman, said, "By statute, the Office of the Inspector General operates independently of the Department of Education and can be called to cooperate with law enforcement."
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings learned of the project Wednesday, said Samara Yudof, a department spokeswoman.
Project Strike Back is virtually unknown within the higher education community, even among top financial aid and admissions officials.
"There was no attempt to conceal these efforts, in that they were referenced in publicly available briefings to Congress and to the General Accountability Office," Miller said in the FBI statement.
The program was mentioned in a September 2002 Education Department report to Congress, noting that it had been initiated. And a May 2004 Government Accountability Office report on data mining noted that the program compares Department of Education and FBI data "for anomalies. Also verifies personal identifiers."
Plan to track students
The revelations come as Spellings prepares to unveil the final report of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which has endorsed a national "unit records" system — basically a database that would track students throughout their academic careers.
While supporters say it would make it easier to learn how both colleges and students perform, critics say such a system could violate student privacy.
Speaking to reporters about the commission's work, Spellings on Wednesday said, "There can and should be ways that we protect security — obviously this government does that at the IRS, at the Social Security Administration and, you know, a lot of places. And we work hard to do that."
She added, "Should we protect privacy and security? Heck yes. Absolutely."
Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the American Council on Education, which represents colleges nationwide, likened the project to the IRS turning tax returns over to the Department of Homeland Security "for possible ties to terrorism."
"Ultimately, this is troubling but not surprising," Hartle said. "It's hard to be surprised when it has become obvious that the government is mining every database that they have. In the war on terror there are no safe harbors where federal data is concerned."


By Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — An advisory commission report sent this month to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recommends a wide range of proposals related to the accessibility, affordability and accountability of higher education.
In a speech Tuesday, Spellings focused on just a few, promising to convene a summit next spring to continue a more comprehensive dialogue. The aim is simple, she said: "To make sure the countless opportunities a college education provides is a reality for every American who chooses to pursue it." She outlined key actions:
• Expand into high schools President Bush's No Child Left Behind education reform law aimed at improving the basic reading and math skills of children, especially in early elementary school grades. Also, align high school standards with college work as a way to ensure that students graduate prepared for college-level work.
• Increase need-based aid. Spellings offered no specifics, nor did she not endorse the commission's proposal to increase the average Pell Grant to cover 70% of the average in-state tuition at public universities. The average Pell Grant ($2,445; the maximum is $4,050) covers about 44.5% of the average public university tuition.
In a statement, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., urged her to "convince the president to immediately" increase the maximum Pell Grant to $5,100 and address a "dysfunctional" student loan system.
• Streamline federal financial aid, cutting application time in half and notifying students of their aid eligibility earlier than spring of their senior year in high school. Spellings noted that the federal financial aid application form is "longer and more complicated than the federal tax form."
• Provide matching grants to colleges, universities and states that collect and publicly report student learning outcomes.
• Convene a meeting with higher-education accrediting groups this year "to move toward measures that place more emphasis on learning." She says accreditation, the primary source of quality control in higher education, is focused "more on how many books are in a college library than whether students can actually understand them."
A number of higher-education groups already have responded to concerns raised by the commission.
Last week, six national higher-education groups outlined "next steps" on issues such as increasing access and improving accountability, including a clearinghouse of "best practices" that institutions can share.
And the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities are developing a system of accountability that could be used by public four-year institutions.
Other groups lamented what neither Spellings nor the commission addressed.
"The commission should have strongly condemned the decline in recent years in state support for higher education," said Edward McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents university faculty.
In a statement, the board of directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities said the commission report "does not offer a coherent vision of (what) graduates actually need for work, life, and active citizenship in the 21st century."


By Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Margaret Spellings called Tuesday for greater accountability by colleges and universities, including the creation of a national database to track how well students learn.
She also called for an overhaul of the financial aid process and an increase in need-based aid.
Spellings' plans are in response to recommendations by a 19-member commission she created last year to address mounting concerns that U.S. higher-education performance and costs largely escape public scrutiny. It said colleges and universities have slipped into "unwarranted complacency" and that higher education's financing system is "increasingly dysfunctional."
"This is the beginning of a process of long-overdue reform," she said. "Over the years, we've invested tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money and just hoped for the best. We deserve better."
The development of a database has been among the commission's most controversial proposals, mostly because of concerns about student privacy. Known as a "unit record" system, it would track the progress of individual — but unidentified — students over time as a way to better assess and compare the educational performance of institutions.
Although President Bush said in a statement that he strongly supports "the thrust of this important report," Spellings will need approval from Congress to implement the database, and she could face an uphill battle. The House passed a bill in March that would prohibit a "unit record" system. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Education Committee, didn't address the database question in his response Tuesday to Spellings' speech but said, "As she and I have discussed, I expect the department to work cooperatively with Congress."
Proponents of a database that tracks students say federal data on graduation rates gives an inaccurate picture because it doesn't account for transfers to other schools. And though many schools keep their own records, they don't necessarily make the data public. About 35 states have systems in place, but they operate as "islands unto themselves," Spellings said.
Spellings said her plan would make information available to parents, policymakers and others in an easy-to-understand format. Data could include students' majors, costs after student aid and how quickly they graduate. To protect privacy, the commission recommended that the database use anonymous identification numbers, not Social Security numbers.
Estimates for the federal cost to create the system infrastructure range from $10 million to more than $100 million, says the American Council on Education, an umbrella group for higher education. That doesn't account for costs to states or to institutions.
Leaders of a number of higher-education groups, including the State Higher Education Executive Officers, say they support such a database. But "the devil is in the details," said Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, which represents large research universities.
Spellings offered few details about the database Tuesday but told commission members Monday that she was open to testing such a database as a pilot project, said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. Education officials said the department would begin with a voluntary, opt-in system for states and institutions.
Ward was the one commission member who did not sign the report, arguing that the commission was looking for "quick solutions." But because Spellings said she would work with higher-education groups, he said, "my anxieties were actually substantially reduced."
But Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said in an e-mail that aside from the privacy question, there has been "far too little discussion of whether such a (database) system is worth creating ... if the data it records is not worth using. Really poor and misleading data is far more dangerous than no data at all."

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