WASHINGTON — The Education Department acknowledged Thursday that at the request of the FBI, it had scoured millions of federal student loan records for information about suspected terrorists in the five years since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The data mining -- known as "Project Strike Back" -- was intended to determine whether terrorism suspects had illegally obtained college aid to finance their operations through identity theft or other means.
Authorities said the program was limited to "fewer than 1,000" persons who were considered witnesses or "subjects" of federal terrorism investigations. Most of the searches were conducted in 2001 and 2002; the program ended in June of this year.
The project -- first disclosed by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism -- is similar to cooperative, sometimes secret arrangements that the FBI made with other federal agencies to gain information about terror suspects since Sept. 11.
But the idea of the government trolling through massive databases containing information on ordinary citizens has concerned privacy advocates. The sleuthing comes against a backdrop of even more aggressive moves that U.S. terror hunters have made since Sept. 11, such as monitoring phone calls without a court order.
The FBI said the searches were limited and triggered by intelligence indicating that terrorists were exploiting student visa and loan programs.
"This was not a sweeping program, in that it involved only a few hundred names," said FBI spokesman John Miller. "This is part of our mission, which is to take the leads we have and investigate them. There was no attempt to conceal these efforts, in that they were referenced in publicly available briefings to Congress and the General Accountability Office."
Under the program, the FBI gave the names to the Education Department's inspector general, which conducted the searches. The searches were limited to "names of subjects already material to counter-terrorism investigations," Miller said, adding that "no records of people other than those already under investigation were called for."
The FBI declined to say how the information was used or whether it led to arrests or prosecutions of suspects.
The Education Department said the FBI sought the information pursuant to an exemption to the federal Privacy Act that authorizes the release of personal data for purposes of a criminal investigation.
"We also analyzed the results for potential abuse of federal student aid, but no cases by our office resulted," said Mary Mitchelson, the counsel to the department's inspector general. "We cannot address whether any specific FBI cases resulted from the data we provided. Most of our efforts concluded in 2002, and we recently officially closed our effort."