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September 1, 2006
FBI Investigates Terrorism Leads, Film At 11

The very next nine-day wonder of protest is about to break open, as King Banaian notes at SCSU Scholars. The Los Angeles Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education both report on a defunct FBI program that investigated suspected terrorists and accomplices by reviewing data on federal grants for higher education. Not surprisingly, the LA Times gets a significant fact incorrect almost immediately:

The Education Department acknowledged Thursday that at the request of the FBI, it had scoured millions of federal student loan records for information about suspected terrorists in the five years since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The data mining — known as "Project Strike Back" — was intended to determine whether terrorism suspects had illegally obtained college aid to finance their operations through identity theft or other means.

Project Strike Back did not involve data mining, no more than a check of a driver's license during a traffic stop can be called data mining. Data mining refers to the practice of taking large databases and sifting through it for self-identifying patterns in an attempt to pinpoint data that otherwise might remain hidden. Put more simply, data mining finds order in chaos.

PSB instead relied on old-fashioned police work. The FBI took information about people suspected of involvement with or support of terrorists -- no more than a thousand in a four-year period -- and searched government databases for any additional information that might reveal more evidence. Student aid would at least identify the location of individuals on watch lists, as well as give investigators some idea of concentrations of the suspects. If two dozen terror suspects show up as receiving aid to attend chemistry courses at the University of Minnesota, that might provide a few dots for the FBI to connect.

In the end, though, PSB turned out to be a bust. Most of its operations took place in the first two years after 9/11, and it shut down for good this June. What rankles some people is that federal education grants and loans are only available to American citizens and legal residents, which leads some to question its efficacy as a counter-terrorist program:

Mr. Hartle called the Education Department's project a "perfect illustration of the dangers of the unit-record system." He pointed out that, to receive federal aid, students must either be U.S. citizens or have a green card. "This is about finding Timothy McVeigh," he said. "This is not about finding Mohammed Atta. ... It's hard to be surprised when the government is mining every single database. In the war on terror, there are no safe harbors."

"This case is another example of Big Brother gone wild," said Michael D. Ostrolenk, national director of the Liberty Coalition, which consists of privacy-rights organizations across the political spectrum. "In the age of everything is a national-security issue, we are destroying the very liberties and privacy rights which make our country unique and great in the history of the world."

As King notes, finding the next Timothy McVeigh might be a good idea, at least before an attack. And since when do we provide safe harbor for terrorists under any conditions? Hartle appears to believe that universities exist in some sort of temporal vacuum where terrorism does not exist. And Ostralenk is simply hysterical. The database for federal education assistance are explicitly not private, nor should they be. It consists of data used to apply for federal money voluntarily -- more voluntarily than DMV information, for instance, and the DMV doesn't disburse thousands of dollars for the completion of the form.

King worries about the effect on terror investigations by the revelation of this program, especially if negative publicity convinces colleges and universities to stop cooperating with law-enforcement agencies. It does not appear that PSB found much of interest and the program already had concluded before its existence became public knowledge, although the FBI noted that the program's efforts were referenced in publicly-available briefings to Congress and the GAO. More likely PSB will become yet another urban myth of "trolling through massive databases", as the Times puts it, and undermine support for the efforts to secure the nation against terrorism.

In this case, this program proved ineffective and eventually ended. However, nothing in either the Times or the Chronicle reports indicate that any laws were even bent, let alone broken, nor that the FBI did anything more unusual than it would for any other kind of criminal investigation. If we continually carp about innovative but perfectly legal methods of finding terrorists, we will once again find ourselves with a smoking hole or two in the middle of our cities and screeching about failures to connect dots. And the next time, we will have no one but ourselves to blame for it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 1, 2006 6:24 AM

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