Federal agents are warning leaders at some of the region's top universities to be on the lookout for foreign spies or potential terrorists trying to steal their research, the head of the FBI's Boston office said yesterday.
Agents plan to visit many more colleges in the coming months and are offering to provide briefings about what they call "espionage indicators" to faculty, students or security staff as part of a national outreach to college campuses.
"What we're most concerned about are those things that are not classified being developed by MIT, Worcester Polytech and other universities," said Warren T. Bamford, special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office. He said colleges are vulnerable to those looking to exploit that information and use it against the United States.
Posing as students
The FBI's Web site says universities should consider the possibility of foreign spies posing as international students or visitors and terrorists studying advanced technologies and scientific breakthroughs on campus, as well as violent extremists and computer hackers.
"We don't walk in with the idea we're are going to stop the free flow of information," Bamford said.
"The academic community is designed to be open, and we just have to make the community aware," he said. "There are people who would be willing to establish relationships to take secrets."
Dennis D. Berkey, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said he and several other university administrators met with Bamford about two weeks ago and welcomed the advice about protecting their unpublished research.
For example, researchers shouldn't leave laptops unprotected in a hotel room in a foreign country, where they could be stolen. Berkey said he puts his own laptop in the hotel safe.
The agents also suggested that professors be wary about who contacts them to talk about their work.
"The general point was, if there is unnatural or unexplained interest in your research and you're nervous about it, here's how to be in touch with us," Berkey said.
He said it was useful to open lines of communication, although he didn't think WPI would take up the FBI on its offer to train faculty, because the university is already well versed in how to protect its research. He welcomed the FBI's interest, however.
"I think that in the era we're living in, we have to be more aware of what's going on around us, generally," he said.
Bamford also recently visited Boston College's president, the Rev. William P. Leahy, said Kevin Shea, Leahy's executive assistant.
"Boston College was very appreciative of their outreach," Shea said. He said BC probably would be taking up the FBI on some of its offers of support, but he did not have details.
John Reinstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, questioned the FBI's presence on college campuses.
"There ought to be some concern about keeping a little bit of distance between the universities and the intelligence community," he said.
He added that the FBI's alliance with universities could have a chilling effect on students or researchers.
"Are you going to ask all the questions you want to ask if someone is out there taking notes and reporting to the FBI that you asked the question which they perceived as suspicious?" Reinstein asked.
Lucia Ziobro, the acting assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's counterintelligence branch in Boston, said, "We're not out there to recruit people and place spies in the academic setting."
She said that the agency would like colleges to report any serious concerns to their campus security, local police or the FBI, but that the program's goal is "to get ahead of the curve on counter-proliferation and espionage ... [and] to give some real useful information to universities."
Erik J. Dahl, a counterintelligence specialist and research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said, "I don't think there's anything wrong with the FBI or other elements of the government reaching out to academia."
But he voiced doubts about how successful it would be in uncovering plots: "It just doesn't seem likely that a foreign terrorist or a homegrown terrorist would be getting tips for his next plot on a university campus."
Bamford and two other FBI agents met about six weeks ago with University of Rhode Island president Robert L. Carothers and Robert A. Weygand, vice president for administration and a former Rhode Island congressman.
The agents talked about another danger in foreign hotel rooms, that hackers might break into a professor's laptop through the hotel Internet system.
The university will consult with researchers and other officials before deciding whether to accept the FBI's offer of faculty training, Weygand said.
"It was a very nice offer," he said. "We are taking it under consideration."