06/13/2007 12:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The New Frontier: Monitoring Academic Research

In a move that would bring a huge smile to J. Edgar Hoover's face, the top gun at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in Boston, reportedly paid a visit to Harvard, MIT, 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 enabling an environment in which those who are accustomed to pursuing unrestricted, and unsupervised scholarship must now look over the 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, and MIT, 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 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 six years, Churchill's speaking engagements at several universities were cancelled. Clearly, whether one agrees with his thesis or not, the right to express one's viewpoint, with impunity, in an academic context, was a iven until the current terror frenzy took hold. What we have here is not the aroma of mendacity, but of McCarthyism. What's more, Churchill is not the only educator to question the authenticity of 9/11 to face expulsion from an American university.

Ideas themselves have become contraband material for this administration. Last June, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security barred a professor from Athens, Professor John Milios, from entering the U.S. upon his arrival at Kennedy Airport on the basis of "irregularities" in his visa. Many groups, including the American Association of University Professors, expressed outrage. Notably, Dr. Milios was en route to read from his paper, "How Class Works," at the State University of New York at Stony Brook when he was detained at the New York airport. This is not a solitary incident, but represents what AAUP general secretary, Roger Bowen, calls "a troubling pattern" in which foreign scholars are precluded from entering the U.S. because of their "political beliefs or associations." These scholars run the gamut of countries from Bolivia to Iran.

Back in 2004, the government refused to grant a visa to a prominent Muslim scholar, Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen, when he was appointed to a tenured faculty position at the University of Notre Dame. The AAUP joined the ACLU and PEN American Center to challenge the provision of the Patriot Act which was used to bar Ramadan from entering the United States. This process by which Homeland Security intervenes in the routine travel of foreign scholars is one that gets remarkably little notice from the press, or Congress.

Whether it's asking neighbors to observe each other, and report any "suspicious" behavior to law enforcement, or asking scholar to be mindful of possible "foreign spies" in their classrooms, it's part of the same pattern which speaks to an attempt to cultivate a climate of self-censorship, and repression in which behavior is modified such that one avoids the kind of inquiry needed to advance higher learning, and higher order thinking, too.

If a university researcher is inhibited, and doesn 't ask the kinds of questions he, or she wants to ask for fear of being labeled "suspicious," and a possible "foreign spy," the consequences can be chilling. How can one be expected to find a cure for HIV/AIDS, address issues of climate change, or political dissent in Iran and Israel, if they worry about one of their colleagues taking notes, and reporting back to the local FB I?

Arguably, the kind of "suspicious behavior" the FBI, and CIA, should be monitoring is the illegal monitoring of domestic and foreign communications in violation of FISA and the First Amendment. The country is at more risk of foreign spies and terrorists infiltrating the government than the university. J. Edgar Hoover, who was notorious for investigating individuals and groups not for criminal conduct, but for their political beliefs and activities, as well as for using illegal wiretaps, might be hard pressed to imagine the day when one of his agents sat down with head honchos of some of the biggest think-tanks in the country, and asked them to launch a program in which they surveil each other. The ACLU, in Massachusetts, has already spoken out against this program, a deplorable byproduct of the Patriot Act. It must stopped, and stopped now.