UT's role in FBI task force raises spying concerns

By Erik Rodriguez
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Friday, March 21, 2003

Members of the University of Texas Police Department have joined forces with federal authorities to create a task force on terrorism, one of more than a dozen partnerships formed between the FBI and campus police departments since the Sept. 11 attacks.

UT police officials signed a memorandum of agreement with FBI officials to join the Austin Joint Terrorism Task Force on Feb. 2, according to documents obtained by UT Watch, a student watchdog group. The task force's purpose is to "investigate terrorist organizations planning or carrying out terrorist acts occurring in or affecting the state of Texas," according to the documents.

UT Police Chief Jeffrey Van Slyke confirmed UT's membership in the task force Thursday.

Some students and activists are worried, saying UT's cooperation amounts to a thinly veiled attempt by federal authorities to spy on foreign students. UT's 4,730 international students made up about 9 percent of the 52,261 student population last fall.

Will Harrell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said the task force revives memories of domestic spying tactics that federal authorities used in the 1950s and 1960s.

"This (Bush) administration has the utmost lack of respect for the right of free expression on campus," he said.

Van Slyke said he doesn't think the task force will be used to spy.

"It's there to try to protect the interest of the U.S. and its citizens," he said. "We are in a time of war, not only in Iraq but against terrorism in general."

Nationwide, federal terrorism task forces have existed since 1980, and several more were added after the 2001 terror attacks. The FBI aims to have a task force for each of its 56 field offices, according to its Web site.

Government officials have said they've been working more closely with campus police, in part to gain better information about Middle Eastern students. Police departments at more than a dozen universities are members of anti-terrorism task forces, including at the University of Colorado, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Florida.

According to the memorandum of agreement, the Austin task force consists of seven federal agents and one UT police officer, who will work out of the FBI's Austin office. Investigative reports will be written on FBI forms, and classified information will not be placed in UT police files.

The memorandum is vague about what the task force will investigate, saying only that members "shall identify, agree upon and articulate specific organizations and investigative objectives or matters assigned to the JTTF." Another document specifies that the FBI will pay all overtime expenses for task force members. Special Agent Rene Salinas, a spokesman for the FBI field office in San Antonio, did not return calls seeking comment.

Clay Reddick, a spokesman for UT Watch, said his group requested the documents after hearing that other universities were involved.

Van Slyke said that he could not reveal details about the task force but that several entities were involved, including the Travis County sheriff's department, the Austin and Round Rock police departments and the U.S. Secret Service. The task force had been in place for more than a year when UT was asked to join.

The disclosure has angered some UT students, who are becoming more sensitive to security issues.

In recent weeks, The Daily Texan student newspaper has been pushing university officials to release information about surveillance cameras on campus.

Students also have asked UT to stop using Social Security numbers in records. That vulnerability was exploited by a hacker who stole more than 55,000 numbers from a UT database a few weeks ago.

erodriguez@statesman.com; 445-3673