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Favorite grad student research project ...

September 26, 2006

When this story first appeared in the NY Times I had yet another opportunity to marvel at all the energy expended by graduate students doing their term projects. God bless them! Just think if we could harness that energy somehow so that the byproduct would benefit charitable organizations. I guess that's more or less what happens with the legal clinics, ER room interns and small business development centers (SBDC's) that various universities operate.

But when it's a lone researcher digging up these sorts of stories on their own, I have special affection for their stories.

Below is the introductory snippet from the NY Times and the last few paragraphs that tell more about the student. For the full-text Drexel users who have signed into our 'Times Select' subscription in the past can follow this link. (For info on our NYTimes Select sub see: LINK

September 1, 2006
Education Dept. Shared Student Data With F.B.I.


The Federal Education Department shared personal information on hundreds of student loan applicants with the Federal Bureau of Investigation across a five-year period that began after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the agencies said yesterday.

Under the program, called Project Strikeback, the Education Department received names from the F.B.I. and checked them against its student aid database, forwarding information. Each year, the Education Department collects information from 14 million applications for federal student aid.

Neither agency would say whether any investigations resulted. The agencies said the program had been closed. The effort was reported yesterday by a graduate student, Laura McGann, at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, as part of a reporting project that focused on national security and civil liberties.

Ms. McGann, the journalism student who reported on the program, said she saw data sharing mentioned, but not described, in a report by the Government Accountability Office that she reviewed in the spring as part of a research project after a seminar on investigative reporting.

'I thought that was pretty unexpected for the Department of Education,' said Ms. McGann, 24, who graduated this year from Medill. 'So I decided I would try to look into that a little more.'

She said she found another mention of the program in a report from the inspector general's office in the department.

In June, Ms. McGann went directly to the Education Department.

'Eventually, I did an on-camera interview with a deputy inspector general there who did comment on the program,' she said.

She said his name was Michael Deshields.

'After that,'' Ms. McGann added, 'I decided I should file a Freedom of Information Act request.'

Last month, she received documents in response to her request that were heavily redacted, she said. Among them were Education Department memorandums describing F.B.I. requests for information on specific people whose names were blocked out and an internal memorandum dated June 16, 10 days after her interview, stating that the data sharing program had terminated. The name of the author of that memorandum was also redacted, she added.

'I learned that getting information from a federal agency you need to be persistent,' Ms. McGann said. 'And I learned that public documents are really a wealth of stories.'

She said she had accepted a position at Dow Jones Newswires in Washington.