WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is creating a screening process for some foreign graduate students who want to do sensitive study that could be put to terrorist uses against the United States.
In a move that is quieting concerns among U.S. educators, a newly formed Interagency Panel on Advanced Science and Security will review perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 visa applications a year.
The academic community had feared the administration would impose a wide-ranging set of restrictions that would require colleges and universities to monitor the courses its foreign students were taking.
"We're not talking about all international students and all science areas, but rather those who are going into advanced programs," said James Griffin, assistant director for social, behavioral and education sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
John Marburger, director of the White House office of science and technology policy, and other scientists in the administration have had a positive impact in drafting a narrowly tailored program, said Scott Sudduth, director of federal relations for the University of California.
"We hope they cast a broader net and seek advice directly from our community as well" in deciding what areas of research trigger the reviews, Sudduth said.
The academic community still has concerns, because the Justice Department and the Pentagon co-chair the new panel.
A scientific counterpoint to law enforcement and national security is necessary throughout the process, said Rich Harpel, director of federal relations at the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.
Harpel said a lengthy panel review of visa applications could delay entry into the country and prevent people from enrolling at the beginning of a school term.
"We need some way for scientists who create these fields to be able to communicate with the government" about the controls the Bush administration is planning, said Victor Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at the Association of International Educators.
Educators became apprehensive last fall when a broadly worded presidential directive said the government must ensure that areas of study with direct application to weapons of mass destruction are not accessible to certain international students.
Under the plan the Bush administration outlined in an hourlong meeting Tuesday, immigration and State Department officials will refer some visa applications to the interagency panel, which will issue advisory opinions. State and immigration officials will continue to make final decisions.
The reviews will cover some students and researchers in two categories: Those seeking to come to the country to study and those already here who want to move into graduate or postgraduate areas of study with technology that is available only in the United States.
The goal of the interagency panel review is to ensure that international scholars do not acquire uniquely available technical and scientific knowledge at U.S. institutions that may be used in a terrorist attack, Griffin said.
The new system formalizes a process in place at the State Department regarding the possible illegal transfer of sensitive technology.
The State Department has a technology alert list that points to 16 high-tech areas that consular officers should be wary of when examining reasons for a visa applicant's planned visit.
Topics include study involving lasers, high-performance metals, navigation and guidance systems, nuclear technology and missile propulsion.