Mohammad Sajid Credit: Courtesy of UCSF Last July, a British biologist strolled into the US embassy in London to get his temporary (J-1) visa stamped so he could return to his California lab. He wasn't worried, even after he learned he needed to undergo a background check. The last time he left London for the United States, a mere 15 months earlier, a background check delayed him for six months. He was told any later checks would be mu" /> Mohammad Sajid Credit: Courtesy of UCSF Last July, a British biologist strolled into the US embassy in London to get his temporary (J-1) visa stamped so he could return to his California lab. He wasn't worried, even after he learned he needed to undergo a background check. The last time he left London for the United States, a mere 15 months earlier, a background check delayed him for six months. He was told any later checks would be mu" />
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Have science, can't travel

Mohammad Sajid Credit: Courtesy of UCSF" />Mohammad Sajid Credit: Courtesy of UCSF Last July, a British biologist strolled into the US embassy in London to get his temporary (J-1) visa stamped so he could return to his California lab. He wasn't worried, even after he learned he needed to undergo a background check. The last time he left London for the United States, a mere 15 months earlier, a background check delayed him for six months. He was told any later checks would be mu

By | August 1, 2007

<figcaption>Mohammad Sajid Credit: Courtesy of UCSF</figcaption>
Mohammad Sajid Credit: Courtesy of UCSF

Last July, a British biologist strolled into the US embassy in London to get his temporary (J-1) visa stamped so he could return to his California lab. He wasn't worried, even after he learned he needed to undergo a background check. The last time he left London for the United States, a mere 15 months earlier, a background check delayed him for six months. He was told any later checks would be much quicker, so he had confidently returned to London for a wedding and scientific conference. The second round should take a few weeks, he was told. So he waited. And waited. The weeks turned into months; his experiments went stale, his colleagues struggled to work around his absence, and another team scooped him by publishing its findings on one of his projects.

Eight months later, Mohammad Sajid was finally cleared to return to the United States. The two background checks kept Sajid away from his work for more than a year since 2005. "The hardest part in the whole situation is that you never know how long it'll take," says Sajid, a codirector of the biochemistry division of the Sandler Center for Basic Research in Parasitic Diseases at the University of California, San Francisco. "You keep telling yourself, it could be any moment now."

Sajid, 40, who was born in Kenya, spent the long months tinkering with manuscripts, giving talks around Europe, and corresponding with the graduate students and postdocs he was supervising. To avoid taking a second apartment (he was still paying $1,200/month rent in San Francisco), Sajid stayed with his parents, siblings, and friends in England. Sajid tried to do some experiments in the Netherlands lab of one of his collaborators. But without the reagents that he had developed, he didn't get very far.

When his research stalled, another group working on the same project - investigating metacaspase, an enzyme involved in malaria transmission - published its findings (L. Le Chat et al., Mol Biochem Parasitol , 153:41-7, 2007). "My work [was] completely on hold," says Sajid.

Other scientists were affected by Sajid's prolonged absence. "It felt like the rug was pulled out from under our research," says James McKerrow, the principal investigator in Sajid's lab. Sajid "was responsible for ramping up the [screening] process" to find proteases that act as drug targets. "Compounds that would have moved on to the next level" were stalled, says McKerrow.

For visitors to the United States with a J-type visa, the State Department performs a preliminary check, and then sends the name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a full background check, according to a spokesperson from the National Academies' International Visitors Office. (Spokespersons for the State Department and FBI say they cannot comment on specific cases.) To check on his status, Sajid, who says he has no criminal record, stayed in regular contact with UCSF's office for international students, which called congressional representatives to speed the process along.

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law, says that government officials need only a suspicious name to justify holding someone for months. When you have a name that happens to be on a list of names to watch, "even if you're 10 months old, you're going to have a background check," she says. "Once a person's name gets flagged, there's not a whole lot you can do," agrees Adam Frank, a Bethesda, Md.-based immigration lawyer.

Since 2003, the National Academies has stepped in to assist 3,766 scientists who experienced trouble crossing the US border, but that's a small fraction of the total number of cases, according to a National Academies spokesperson. Of those scientists who receive assistance, most wait less than three months, and only six percent face delays of six months or longer.

Though he says this experience has left him extremely frustrated with the system, Sajid can joke about it now that he has returned to the United States. His siblings have threatened to marry him off to a US citizen before November, when he has to travel to England to obtain a more permanent (H-1) visa, because no renewals remain on his J-1 visa. But this time, he says, "I'm packing up my reagents and my flasks," and will have his students mail them if he's delayed - again.

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Comments

Avatar of: Olivier Lefevre

Olivier Lefevre

Posts: 2

August 3, 2007

The wonder here is that people put up with this: you'd think someone with "codirector" rank in his lab is not a nobody and has choices. You know the saying: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Maybe this particular man has reasons of his own to want to stay in the US but, in general, as long as people continue to put up so meekly with whatever the DoHS and FBI throw at them, why would the US change its abominable ways? Foreign scientists need to learn to vote with their feet and stop supporting this regime.\n\nIndeed this is true of the entire security state there: the passivity of the public is unbelievable.
Avatar of: B Hanley

B Hanley

Posts: 11

August 3, 2007

Unfortunately, since physicians have been found to be at the core of a significant terrorist plot, and since it is known that Al Qaeda wants to use chemical and biological weapons, a person such as Mr. Sayed will be watched carefully. In this latest plot, nobody around the plotters would have dreamed they could do such a thing. It is even more unfortunate that London has proved to be a center for ex-patriate Islamist radical activity. Consequently, a man such as Mr. Sayed, by traveling there, fits a pattern match that puts him on a list of very high level of concern. \n\nAdditionally, many of the 9-11 attackers were college educated, with families, so that traditional marker of relative safety has also been reversed. And if someone is a US citizen, and they have such a pattern match, that person will also be flagged and questioned by the FBI. How do I know this? Because it occurred in my case and I am neither of middle eastern extraction, nor Muslim. But, I had a pattern of travel and contacts that matched a pattern of concern. \n\nWe must all bear with this, and cooperate with it, because there really is no other way to deal with this problem of asymmetric warfare. It is unfortunate that this warring party bases itself on a religion's ideology, but that is how things are. It is very real, there have been multiple declarations of war. It is not a game, and failure to detect a scientist who is a terrorist could result in millions of casualties. \n\nIs it better that a few people be inconvenienced than for thousands or millions to die? I think so. It is unfortunate, but that is how things are today. Because not only would there be those deaths, but there would be the official war machine cranked up even more. So I don't think we scientists should complain about this. To do so is to imply that scientists are more honest and trustworthy than physicians or engineers. They aren't.
Avatar of: Wolfgang H.

Wolfgang H.

Posts: 2

August 3, 2007

His name just made him suspicious to the consular officer that interviewed him. In fact, according to state dept. procedures, every scientist in biology from student to professor are required to undergo a background check as they apply for a non permanent visa like J-1. The state department has a list of technologies it regards as risky. In Biology it lists general fields and techniques which are in public domain like biochemistry or recombinant DNA technology (just google sao tal conoff, the list is a gem). As consular officer are not aware of the all inclusive nature of the procedure, they apply to whoever they don't like that day. Being named Mohammed as a single male did for sure not help. The type of visa is also to blame: J-1 is an exchange visitor visa where, to the eyes of the consular officer, the holder is asking to learn something from the USA. In the case of H-1B the scientist is then bringing his brain to the US while performing the same job.
Avatar of: john toradze

john toradze

Posts: 9

August 3, 2007

As far as I know, the idea that these lists are just a some names, arbitrarily applied by stupid people is not true. There is a lot of work that goes into trying to figure it out, and a huge amount of work is involved in trying to check up on who people are and what they do. \n\nBut I hear from many colleagues arbitrary and disparaging remarks that assume a lot of knowledge with no evidence at all to back them up. Things are just assumed, out of thin air to be some way. But scientists shouldn't operate that way, should they?

August 4, 2007

To those of you saying that you think this sort of treatment is justified: let's hope you don't change your tone when it happens to you. \n\nIf this researcher had been checked out previously, how did he get delayed again? It happened because these are sprawling inefficient government agencies who often inhibit those scientists who are trying to combat bioterrorism through their work. \n\nDoes the government have any evidence justifying the repeated harrassment of this individual?
Avatar of: John Collins

John Collins

Posts: 37

August 6, 2007

I suppose the article is really highlighting that governments are increasingly prying into personal spheres including travel patterns without the decency of accountability. In the long run this will already contribute to thousands of people suffering longer and dying earlier from debilitating disease, where scientific endeavor and treatments are disrupted or delayed. This inefficient snuffling around is extended to telephone conversations and e-mails, posted answers to The Scientist,and soon if not already personal hard-disks.\nMost inhabitants of the "free-world", if we can still naively talk of this, react allergically to this. During a recent visit to Canada where I was reluctant to divulge all my personal reasons for my visit the armed customs official said "We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way", touching his gun. I, a british citizen, 62 years old, and I believe with nothing to hide after a life devoted to combatting disease and disability, have never felt more powerless and threatened in my life. I find this personally more horrifying in its institutionalized form than any probablity of me or my family appearing in some mortality statistic of a terrorist attack. Must we put up with this intimidation? I find it humiliating in the extreme and as such incompatible with the Laws on human rights.\n\nI think that the only long term way to an acceptable "normality" will be to demand from our political representatives that they examine the situation again by weighing the costs of this "1984" absolute control mentality against the cost of unexpected occasional terrorist activity not detected with less extensive "old fashioned" anti-terrorist methods. \n\nI think it is not irrelevant to ask that we remember how East Germany, once a highly productive, highly educated country completely went down the drain with their totalitarian spying on every individual activity that fell outside of some arbitrary and ever-tighter-to-be-defined norm. May we learn from history. \n\n
Avatar of: Wolfgang H.

Wolfgang H.

Posts: 2

August 6, 2007

As I feel that the comment from John Toradze was directed at my use of the word "arbitrary", I should explain myself with a bit more facts.\n\nFirst, I never refered at the state department as "stupid", ignorant might be the right world. Second the only explanation for the application of the SAO (security advisory opinion) is arbitrary judgement made by ignorant consular officers. I do not blame the Conoffs here, the state department is the one who issued the not even high school level paper called the "technology alert list" (TAL). Clearly the State Depart. has no ex-scientist working on this list nor did they ever checked with homeland security or the cdc how different their lists are.\nIf you want to know why it took six months for this british biologist to return to his lab, read the testimony of Janice Jacobs who was in 2004 the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Visa Services: http://travel.state.gov/law/legal/testimony/testimony_787.html\nThis procedure is much faster these days then it used to be in 2004 thanks to additional financing.\n\nSecond, let's explain the TAL. Janice Jacobs said "The basic document that provides instructions to consular officers in the field on how to process Visas Mantis cases is the Technology Alert List (TAL). This is an annual cable that is disseminated to all posts at the beginning of every Fiscal Year. The cable contains two parts: the list of sensitive technologies and guidance to consular officers on how to process Mantis cases." This means that a conoff interviewing a visa candidate like Mohammad Sajid is guided by a piece of paper explaining the export sensitive technologies to determine if he should ask for a background check (the "visa mantis SAO").\nHere are the relevant quotes from the TAL. \n "8. When applying the TAL, CONOFFs should first: \n-- Determine whether the applicant proposes to engage in advanced (doctoral, postdoctoral or research scholar) research or studies or business activity (ies) involving any of the scientific/technical fields listed in Tab A."\nTab A is the gem concerning biology:\n"F. CHEMICAL, BIOTECHNOLOGY AND BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING: The technology used to produce chemical and biological weapons is inherently dual-use. The same technologies that could be applied to develop and produce chemical and biological weapons are used widely by civilian research laboratories and industry; these technologies are relatively common in many countries. Advanced biotechnology has the potential to support biological weapons research. In the biological area, look for interest in technologies associated with: \n-- Aerobiology (study of microorganisms found in the air or in aerosol form) \n-- Biochemistry \n-- Pharmacology \n-- Immunology \n-- Virology \n-- Bacteriology \n-- Mycology \n-- Microbiology \n-- Growth and culturing of microorganisms \n-- Pathology (study of diseases) \n-- Toxicology \n-- Study of toxins \n-- Virulence factors \n-- Genetic engineering, recombinant DNA technology \n-- Identification of nucleic acid sequences associated with pathogenecity \n-- Freeze-drying (lyophilization) \n-- Fermentation technology \n-- Cross-filtration equipment \n[...]\n"\nThis list is simply all-inclusive on public domain fieldsof study not techniques. Here comes the part where effectively I do not have statistically relevant numbers or solid facts, but given my own circle of collegues and friends and my experience, I am ready to claim that not every J-1 applicant in the field of biology gets a background check (I'm restricting myself to J-1, probably with other student visas it's the same. But in many cases the background checks are performed in advance by default no matter what. At least you wait before getting to the US or within the US not while demanding an extension). But given this list, they should. All of my friends did not but I did. Why? because I answered with a yes the question "do you use recombinant dna technology" (3 months wait until I paid 900$ an ex state dept. employee who knew where to fill an expedited procedure demand). Kind of ironic and insulting as I received my PhD from the place where one of the nobel laureats for the discovery of restriction enzymes was working.\nMy model: it's applied arbitrarily according to the face of the applicant (or the mood of the conoff. maybe they have quotas to fill?).\nOther example are the following:\nhttp://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v439/n7079/full/439901a.html\nI'm ready to bet some money that these were cases of SAO applied according to the TAL.
Avatar of: B Hanley

B Hanley

Posts: 11

August 6, 2007

If that gentleman had actually read my post, he would have noted that I had (as a U.S. citizen, born and raised) been personally questioned by the FBI because I fit a pattern of contacts. \n\nI know Wolfgang wasn't writing to me, but perhaps he could provide some thoughts about how to deal with the problem? The reality is, a not very complex attack could easily kill tens of thousands, and not very unlikely hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million or more. As Wolfgang says, the technology is highly available. It is as effective in many ways as nuclear weapons, and so available it is almost certain to be used sooner or later. \n\nTurn the problem around for a while and think that you are the person charged with making sure such an event doesn't happen. What I would do is recommend human intelligence, infiltration work. I have recommended other things. These Visa matters are hard, because there are very few people that are considered qualified to judge whether a scientist with certain characteristics is a threat or not. Personally, I think what Wolfgang posted shows a high degree of bureaucratic silliness - answering no lets a person through the net, and there is no cross-check. The only reason for concern is later liability should some highly improbable review happen. So one could presume that the people to look most closely at are those who answer no. But, I don't make such decisions. \n\nAnything done will inconvenience some. I don't have stats except the 6% figures from the article. That's not too bad if you ask me. This really is worth thinking about for a long time. How do we create a system that will work?
Avatar of: John Collins

John Collins

Posts: 37

August 7, 2007

I suppose that many will support B. Hanley's attitude that we must support the authorities to do the best they can to stop terrorists "slipping through the net" and put up with the consequences at the level of individual freedom (of movement in the present context). As a biologist with some insights into how evolution functions, on our genes, in our societies and in development of technologies, it would seem to me that theory predicts that these scenarios of mass destruction will not remain scenarios, but will actually occur, whatever you do. This is not reassuring, but probably a fact that we need to come to terms with. If search patterns for terrorists are established, those terrorists that survive and infiltrate will be the ones that don't conform to that pattern.... a never ending escalation with inbuilt imperfections and endless permutations. Consequently following this fatalistic but highly realistic line of argument, we should be considering where best to put our energy. Control of individual freedom is expensive in time, money and competitiveness of the country concerned, particularly counterproductive in terms of inhibiting freedom of thought and innovation.\n\nWe could perhaps have delayed the scale of the threat if "developed" (but apparently still highly insecure)countries had not put so much effort into optimizing methods of mass destruction that can be so easily transported. But no need to cry over spilled milk.
Avatar of: B. Hanley

B. Hanley

Posts: 11

August 7, 2007

I think I should make my own thoughts clear here, aside from my comment that we should do our best to work with authorities for prevention. I think that we have to be very careful to do nothing to slow down our own pace of development. The reason is simple, that this technology is too well known, it can be, in principle, built from scratch, anywhere. So mucking things up here will only weaken our position. This is one reason we need to work cooperatively with the authorities, so that when we talk to them, one on one, we can make that case in a calm fashion. \n\nCan the authorities do idiotic things? Yeah. No kidding. See the Thomas Butler affair for an egregious example of FBI idiocy in action. There are powerful motives inside of the FBI and Customs Service to find someone, and score points. Such leads to promotion, raises and status among peers. It's like the motivation among scientists to fake data or fudge conclusions to get the next grant and tenure. Does it happen? You bet it does. We need to support colleagues when we see that happening. \n\nThere are also very powerful bureaucratic forces that make it hard for one of these law enforcement agencies to back off once they commit a significant amount of resources. It looks bad for the boss who ordered it, and that hurts his future. I am quite sure that's what happened to Dr. Butler. Plus, those agencies are populated with agents that mostly cut their teeth on the "drug war" and take those "templates" into the biowarfare arena. They have no other templates. It is up to us to provide them, and keep making that case. \n\nI don't think that the evolutionary thoughts of John Collins fit this situation. The reason is that I thnk his evolutionary thinking is based on experience with populations of microorganisms that have much higher populations in a half liter than there are human beings on this planet. Those generations can turn over as rapidly as every 20 minutes. Human groups produce memes, yes, and think of new things. But they are always human, and will always communicate, require motive, indoctrination, have ideological and social support, (except in very rare instances, akin to the UNABOM case) and make mistakes. This puts serious limitations on the evolutionary model. Social structure models, such as Sageman's[1] work are more appropriate. Galula's[2] book is still a primary textbook for military people dealing with insurgency, and Pape[3] and Dershowitz[4] do pretty well to introduce the strategic thinking behind suicidal warfare methods. \n\nScientists generally have a very good understanding of their field, but a weak understanding of asymmetric warfare. But think of this as a bit like faculty internecine battles and academic fraud and that's a place to begin. \n\n1. Sageman M: Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; 2004.\n2. Galula D: Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. St. Petersburg, Fla: Hailer Publishing; 2005 (Original Publication 1964).\n3. Pape R: Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House; 2005.\n4. Dershowitz AM: Why Terrorism Works - Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge. New Haven and London: Yale University Press; 2002.\n\n

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