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FBI spying on college students with financial aid

This summer, journalism students uncovered a FBI surveillance program claiming to search for “potential terrorist activity” among college students receiving financial aid. Dubbed, “Project Strike Back,” the FBI says that the five-year program ended in June, 10 days after students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism interviewed the FBI agent who oversaw the data mining.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid databank was the source for the FBI’s monitoring. FAFSA stores the


Students protest against the Iraq war and military recruiters in South Los Angeles.
Photo: Ian Thompson

personal information of about 14 million students who have applied for federal student loans. Since the spying program was made public, the FBI has tried to deflect criticism: “There was no attempt to conceal these efforts, in that they were referenced in publicly available briefings to Congress and the General Accountability Office,” said John Miller, an FBI spokesperson.

Another FBI spokesperson, Cathy Milhoan said, “This program was one of many around the country used by the FBI to identify people of potential interest.” In this case, only students in need of financial aid were “of potential interest” to the FBI. It seems that the capitalist class had no need to monitor its progeny.

The FBI was able to get the information because “Project Strike Back” was carried out with assistance from the U.S. Department of Education. The Department of Education performed the data searches and then delivered to the FBI the names, addresses, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, and driver’s license numbers of the targeted students.

The Department of Education has said that the data mining was intended not only to “root out terrorists,” but also to detect loan abuse, fraud, and identity theft, but it admits that no such cases have surfaced throughout the entire five-year program.

The FBI has refused to say if any “terrorist” students have been uncovered by the financial aid surveillance. But according to Syracuse University’s records, no “terrorist” cases have been referred to the FBI from the Department of Education.

One of many spying programs

This ridiculous FBI program is not really about finding “terrorists.” It is meant to intimidate and repress students and to keep tabs on student activists. It is not the first time the U.S. government has sanctioned surveillance of college students, who have historically been a key component in the anti-war movement. During the Vietnam War, the FBI spied on, infiltrated, disrupted, and attempted to destroy student movements and organizations through similar tactics.

“Project Strike Back” is also just one of many domestic surveillance programs uncovered in recent years.

On Dec. 14, 2005, NBC news revealed that the Department of Defense compiled a confidential 400-page document that lists four dozen anti-war and antirecruitment meetings or protests as “threat incidents.” The document originated from a Pentagon database. One of the targeted protests was the major anti-war action on March 19, 2005, organized by the ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) in Los Angeles.

Spying on college students is a continuation of long-time government spying on political activists. When the government faces a political crisis, as it does with the Iraq war, domestic surveillance becomes a ubiquitous policing tool. Even when there is no crisis, the government and its police spy on political activists and others. That is a primary function of police in a capitalist society.

For years, the government openly and limitlessly conducted surveillance on U.S. residents to brutally silence dissent and spread fear among those interested in becoming involved with working-class and anti-war struggles. One of the most well-known programs directed at “exposing, disrupting, misdirecting, discrediting or otherwise neutralizing” political movements and their leaders was the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO—Counter Intelligence Program.

The FBI’s spying program on students is a blatant affront to people’s civil liberties. Organizing and speaking out against this program is essential to defeating it. The government hopes that people will be intimidated and respond meekly to its illegal machinations. But, instead of cowering, a strong, united movement of revolutionaries and progressives can push back this attack.


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