"That really alarmed the students and faculty," James Yoder, vice president for academic affairs at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, told United Press International. "What we're worried about is how far that characterization will go in the government's computers."
The students, foreign postgraduates in the world-renowned oceanographic study program the institute runs with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, applied earlier this year for the new Transportation Worker Identity Credential -- an ID card required for anyone who needs unescorted access to U.S. port facilities.
The biometric ID card, which eventually will be issued to more than a million people, is designed to prevent terrorists and other malefactors getting access to U.S. ports.
"We were advised by the U.S. Coast Guard that our employees and students should apply" for the card, said Yoder, who noted that Woods Hole personnel need access to ports to prepare the institute's fleet of scientific vessels for research trips.
Yoder said 15 foreign students at Woods Hole had applied for the card, and there are about a dozen other oceanographic institutions around the country whose students would also be applying.
The TSA denied the 15 applications and wrote to those who appealed their denial, saying the agency had determined "that you pose, or are suspected of posing, a security threat."
Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., the chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee, wrote earlier this month to the agency asking that the determinations be withdrawn.
"The TSA has admitted that these students do not fall into any of the categories it uses to determine security threats" but were simply ruled ineligible for the card because they were in the United States on student visas, he said. "But it inexplicably refuses to change its determination."
Critics say the news is another example of the way in which the United States is jeopardizing its status as a global research leader by misapplied security measures aimed at foreign students.
"The actions by the TSA have the effect of telling oceanographic students that perhaps it would be best to do their graduate studies in another country," said Miller.
"I worry about that," said Yoder. The students "are among the top oceanographic students in the country, if not the world," he added. "They are important contributors to our research efforts. … The danger is they will go elsewhere" to study in future.
TSA spokesman Christopher White told United Press International that "students with F1 or J1 visas (like the post-graduates at Woods Hole) are not eligible for TWIC cards" but acknowledged that "labeling them security threats was an error."
"The bottom line is that the wording of the letter that was sent to these individuals does not reflect our intentions," he said, adding, "We have re-written the letter that individuals get if they are denied" the card.
Yoder said that students without the cards would still be able to get access to port facilities but would need to be escorted. "We can live with that," he said.
But he added that the students remained concerned the designation might affect their ability to travel in and out of the United States. "We would like written assurance that (the determination) will be wiped off their records."
The TSA's Web site says information about TWIC applicants would be shared with the FBI and other government agencies "for licensing, law enforcement or security purposes or in the interests of national security."
White said the students' designation "will not be shared with any other program or agency, and their travel will not be affected." But he said the agency, though it would send different letters in the future, was "not currently planning" to write to those who had already received the security threat designation.