The FBI Spies On Academic Research

In a move that would put a huge smile on J. Edgar Hoover's face, the top gun at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in Boston, reportedly paid a visit to Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Massachusetts to warn university officials to be "on the lookout for foreign spies," or "terrorists" who might be after "sensitive" research. These visits are, at the moment, confined to the state of Massachusetts, yet, according to Special Agent in Charge, Warren Bamford, this is the beginning of a national program. (AP)

Bamford insists that the attempt is not to censor information, or hinder an atmosphere of academic openness, but merely to raise "awareness." He contends that he's only suggesting that if anyone is poking around suspiciously, or expressing "unnatural" curiosity about a research project that university professors, and scholars, should simply give him a call. But, at a time when reports on global warming have been tampered with, and when military reports on killing of civilians have had whole sections blacked out, one can hardly expect this move to go unnoticed among civil liberties' advocates.

That the head of a local office of the FBI should meet with university officials to discuss creating an environment in which those who are accustomed to pursuing unrestricted, and unsupervised, scholarship must now look over their shoulder, is an egregious extension of the USA Patriot Act which advises neighbors to report suspicious behavior by other neighbors to local law enforcement.

And, while chilling, this program appears to be part of a growing practice on the part of government to monitor, and surveil its citizens electronic, and telephonic communications. Some might even argue that academia should not be exempt from governmental surveillance, but the medical research being done at Harvard may one day save their lives. Unfortunately, too, this is not the first attempt to compromise the concept of the university as a haven for expressing divergent, and controversial thought.

Sometime, in the next several weeks, the Board of Regents will decide whether or not to fire a tenured professor of ethnic studies, Ward Churchill, who has taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder for nearly 20 years for an essay he wrote, back in 2001, comparing victims of the World Trade Center bombing, on 9/11, to Adolf Eichmann. You'll recall that, over the past 6 years, Churchill's speaking engagements at several universities were canceled. Clearly, whether one agrees with his thesis or not, the right to express one's viewpoint, with impunity, in an academic context, was a given until the current terror frenzy took hold. What we have here is not the aroma of mendacity, but of McCarthyism.

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