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U.S. Proposes New Filter to Fight Terrorism

Visiting foreign graduate students, postdocs, and scientists would be blocked from pursuing certain types of research at U.S. universities and national labs under new criteria designed to thwart potential terrorists. The policy, announced informally by the White House on Tuesday and soon to be part of a presidential directive, comes as a relief to higher education officials, who had feared a more intrusive policy.

The new policy was developed by an interagency committee that included representatives of the major U.S. science agencies as well as officials from the State, Justice, and Commerce departments. It flows from an 29 October presidential directive ordering a plan to prevent foreign students and scientists from "abusing" the visa process by which they gain entry to U.S. schools. Under the plan, a new Interagency Panel on Advanced Science Security (IPASS) would screen visa applicants. Roughly 175,000 students or scholars enter the country each year to carry out scientific work, says James Griffin, a Department of Education official on loan to the White House who is coordinating the effort. But Griffin says only a "very small percentage of them" would even raise a red flag. The key criteria will be whether the applicants plan to work on "sensitive topics" that are "uniquely available" at U.S. campuses or other research facilities, he says.

The co-chairs of IPASS will be appointed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Committee members will be drawn from various agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Griffin says that the White House is weighing a suggestion from university officials to set up an expert committee to help IPASS define "uniquely sensitive" courses of study and areas of research.

Higher-education lobbyists welcome the involvement of research agencies and like the fact that the executive branch--either the State Department or the Immigration and Naturalization Service--and not universities will take the lead in deciding whether to conduct a more extensive investigation of individual applicants. "This is an excellent framework for protecting national security, although many details remain to be spelled out," says Terry Hartl of the American Council on Education, which has followed the issue closely. "They seem to be fairly narrow and defensible criteria," agrees George Leventhal of the Association of American Universities, a group of 62 major research institutions.