FBI spied on foreign applicants for loans

November 9, 2006

Investigative journalism graduate students have exposed a secret American government policy of reviewing the records of applicants for university financial aid to see if any are using the money to finance terrorist activities.

"Project Strike Back", as it was called by the FBI, was initiated after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and went on for five years, the journalism students, from Northwestern University near Chicago, discovered.

The FBI gave the names of terror suspects to the Department of Education, which checked to see if any had requested aid. The FBI's John Miller defended the project, saying it had been within the law. He said that "only a few hundred names" had been checked against records of about 14 million applicants for financial aid.

"When we asked for the co-operation of the department's Office of the Inspector-General, it was to run names of subjects already material to counterterrorism investigations against the databases to look for evidence of either student loan fraud or identity theft," Mr Miller said.

"No records of people other than those under investigation were called for.

This is part of our mission, to take the leads and investigate them. There was no attempt to conceal these efforts."

Since 2002, government agencies that use new technologies to check personal information have been required to conduct what is called a privacy impact statement, which the students found had left a non-classified paper trail leading back to the department.

The FBI closed the programme in June.

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