A new spy hunt has begun in Britain, aimed not at Soviet moles but at American college students working as unpaid research assistants for British members of Parliament.
Acting on "a number of allegations" from other members of Parliament, House of Commons leader Francis Pym ordered a parliamentary inquiry yesterday into whether the several dozen American researchers pose a security risk or unacceptably strain office facilities.
Parliamentary sources said there was no evidence of a security threat beyond concern about access to parliamentary passes and the sight of unfamiliar faces in the corridors. But many Americans and Britons fear that the inquiry could jeopardize American university programs that for several years have offered internships for semesters abroad.
The probe has focused somewhat hostile news media attention on complaints by some members of Parliament and their paid British staffers that the Americans may be spies for foreign intelligence agencies or industrial concerns or are misusing scarce parliamentary research facilities for personal academic projects.
"I think they're seen by some here as slave labor for certain MPs," said a paid part-time British research assistant. "There have been complaints that some of them are too loud, ask stupid questions and monopolize things like library facilities, copying machines or lunch tables."
"This just came out of the blue," said Lisa Vahdat, a University of Rochester student who works for Bruce George, a member of Parliament from the Labor Party. "People keep asking me now if I'm working for the CIA or the KGB."
George, one of a number of parliament members who enthusiastically support the student intership programs, said he thought the controversy was less about security than about "xenophobia and barely suppressed anti-Americanism."
"I feel there is a growing anti-American feeling in this country, although I personally have not felt it from MPs," said Dan Markowitz from the State University of New York, who works for a Labor member of Parliament who did not want to be identified.
Markowitz and George pointed to statements by Conservative member of Parliament Nicholas Winterton about "the presence of very strange people in this building who seem to work at strange hours" and by Labor member of Parliament Allen Adams that "the interesting thing about these people is the number of foreign accents. Many of them seem to be from the Middle East or to be Americans."
This is because the American students work much later and longer hours than the members' paid secretaries and researchers, said Vahdat.
"Parliament is in session late at night, and we're busy listening to debates and doing things for our MPs," she said. "That's when politics is going on here."
Other student researchers and members of Parliament said they believed the Americans were most resented by paid British parliamentary staffers, with whom they compete for scarce work space and facilities.
"Parliament has been overcrowded for years," said Laurie Slavitt from the University of Michigan, who works for Conservative member of Parliament Keith Best. "In some cases, six members or six secretaries have to share a single office. It's easy for them to place the blame for their frustration on the American students."
Stanley Clinton Davis, a Labor Party parliamentary spokesman on foreign affairs, said he "could not cope" without his American student researcher, Jane Hatterer from Princeton. Each member's staff allowance of $15,000, plus free stationery and postage, allows him to hire just one secretary and possibly share another or a paid researcher, according to Davis.
The 635 members of Parliament have 900 secretaries and 200 researchers, paid and unpaid, working in an old office building outside the Palace of Westminster, compared with the thousands of staffers in numerous large office buildings on Capitol Hill for 435 members of Congress.
"It will be a sad reflection on British parliamentary life if these kids are made scapegoats for our problems," Davis said.
Lisa Toelle, who supervises 20 American students placed here by Educational Programs Abroad through the University of Rochester, said the British are unfamiliar with American university internship programs in which students and their families pay for the three months spent working outside college for academic credit.
There are no similar unpaid internships in Parliament for Britons. "Anyone who works for free here is looked upon with suspicion," Toelle said.
Although she would not vouch for 40 more American students working in Parliament in other programs or on their own, Toelle said the University of Rochester carefully screened students placed through Educational Programs Abroad, including Vahdat, Slavitt, Hatterer and Markowitz. The students said they do a wide variety of legislative research, working closely with members of Parliament, while friends with Capitol Hill internships in Washington complain they seldom see their member of Congress.