WASHINGTON – Searching for terrorists, the FBI and the Education Department's investigative arm have secretly vetted people applying for college aid, documents show.
The goal of "Project Strike Back" was to determine if terrorism suspects, through identity theft or other means, illegally obtained college aid to finance their operations.
The data-mining project was first disclosed by the Medill School of Journalism.
The secret effort began right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The program was shut down this June, nearly five years later, according to documents obtained through Medill's Freedom of Information Act request.
Under the program, the FBI gave names to the Education Department's Office of Inspector General, which ran them through databases of millions of financial aid applications to determine if student aid had been sought or obtained.
Fewer than 1,000 names were checked against the databases, said Cathy Milhoan, spokeswoman for the FBI.
"In the post 9-11 world, it's the job of the FBI to connect the dots and follow our investigation wherever it leads us," Milhoan said. "We appreciate the effort of everyone -- the Department of Education, the IG, and every other citizen out there that's helped us."
She added that the data-mining is legal and limited: "We're not out there arbitrarily pulling citizens' information. We do it in accordance with the law."
Medill's disclosure of the review of students' records is the latest revelation in a broad, and controversial, effort by the Bush administration to mine data. Advocates say the work is aimed at saving lives.
But critics have accused the administration of overstepping its bounds -- such as by authorizing warrantless surveillance on some international phone calls, collecting telephone records on Americans and accessing an international database of financial information.
"This is going to be quite an unwelcome surprise to college students and their families," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education, an umbrella lobbying group for higher education.
Hartle said law enforcement owes the public an explanation.
"If it's a carefully designed, targeted initiative that really goes after people the government is concerned about, it's hard to object," he said. "But it's another case where we don't exactly know what the boundaries are of the government's activities. They have provided very little detail about who is being examined. It's the ambiguity that's troubling."
The inspector general also reviewed the records of schools and lenders to determine if the federal financial aid program has been defrauded, according to documents. Any details developed were to be turned over to the FBI and the Justice Department.
The inspector general reports directly to the deputy education secretary and the education secretary. But the office is considered an internal watchdog, and its work is independent.
To apply for federal financial aid, students fill out a form that requires such personal information as Social Security number, date of birth and financial holdings.
Federal law allows the release of that personal data for a criminal investigation, and the form makes clear to students how the information can be used.
The data mining was focused on the Sept. 11 attacks, not terrorism in general, officials said. Most of the review of student records happened in 2002. The inspector general's office says it spent less than 600 hours on the effort, and less than 50 hours in the last four years.
Even though the "Project Strike Back" is closed, the FBI continues to submit names to be run through the financial aid databases on a case-by-case basis.
The disclosure could torpedo a recommendation now under review by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. A federal commission appointed to review higher education says the nation should have a "privacy-protected" record system to track how students perform in college.