Surveilling students: Same old, same old

As an undergraduate at American University, I had the surprise of finding that the campus administration had handed over information on me to the South African embassy (I was a South African citizen at that time). As a graduate student at Northwestern University, I was shocked to learn that campus security had drilled peepholes into the walls of the stalls in the men’s washrooms. Later, it was learned that authorities at a nearby academic institution had passed information on the political activities of Iranian students to the SAVAK secret police. Students and others across the country raised hell about these abuses.

Now John Ashcroft has the FBI on the campuses again. The case of an Arab student at the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois provides a good example of what is going on.

Ahmed Bensouda is an Arab student with a Moroccan passport who has been picked up by the INS and the FBI on May 30 and is being processed for deportation by the INS office in Chicago. On the surface, the Bensouda case appears to be one of those “visa problems” that have led to the jailing of so many Arab and Middle Eastern people since Sept. 11 (feeling exhausted, he had taken a break from attending class, which now gets you arrested if you are a foreign student of Arab background). However, in the course of interrogating him, the FBI made it clear that they have people like him under surveillance, with their real beef the political activities of Arab students.

Is Bensouda connected somehow with Al Qaeda? No, he comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum, namely the “libertarian” left. He is not connected to any violent acts but he has spoken out forcefully for Palestinian rights and against U.S. policy in the Middle East. This, and the fact that he is an Arab, are the real reasons for his being singled out, says his growing group of supporters.

The support group staged a demonstration of some 150 people outside the Chicago offices of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services on June 21. At the demonstration, Bensouda’s attorney, Jim Fennerty, chair of the Chicago Chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild, pointed out the inconsistency of the government’s action toward Bensouda and suggested that the aim of the Bush administration is to use accusations against people like him to distract attention from the gutting of human services. But there was a modest victory: The judge granted Bensouda bond and also ruled that the government could not bar Bensouda’s friends and family from the hearings on the case.

Cases like that of Bensouda should be a matter of worry not only to students, but to college faculty around the country. The Ashcroft/Nixon/Hoover mentality always wants to turn teachers and social workers into auxiliary policemen. In most colleges, faculty members have to keep track of which students are attending class and which are not. Does a professor’s report to the administration that foreign student so-and-so has not been attending class for some weeks lead to that student’s arrest by the INS, or even the FBI?

In colleges where I have taught, if the student stops attending and you don’t report this to the administration, the student automatically flunks when you don’t turn in his or her grade at the end of the semester. So the student is jeopardized either way.

There are a number of other troubling questions: Could student papers be used as evidence that the student is a political undesirable and should be deported? Can we now expect that when we teachers encourage students to speak out and express their views, the INS and the FBI might be taking notes? This is all too reminiscent of the Vietnam War days, when many college teachers feared that giving a student a bad grade would lead to a grave in Vietnam.

Time to raise hell on campus again.





Emile Schepers is a contributor in Chicago. He can be reached at pww@pww.org