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NIH director apologizes for 'mishandled’ security that blocked Iranian scientists

A new sign at the entrance to the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. tells visitors they must state their citizenship to gain entry. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins has apologized to two Iranian graduate students blocked from campus after they were asked to disclose their citizenship, amid growing opposition to the new security protocols enforced with scant explanation or notice.

In an email Friday to the “NIH Family,” Collins said he is “deeply troubled” that a Georgetown University graduate student was interrupted during a presentation that was part of an application for a postdoctoral job and escorted from the campus in Bethesda, Md. He said he has “extended a personal apology" to that person.

“I also have learned of another non-U.S. citizen who had to miss the first day of a two-day meeting because of visitor clearance issues. I am also reaching out to that person to express regret,” Collins wrote.

In the email, Collins said the visitor clearance process “was mishandled by security staff” and that officials are reviewing recent changes to the way visitors and patients are screened to “ensure that all of our guests, regardless of where they are from, are treated with the utmost respect and consideration.”

Collins’s apology followed a Washington Post report that the unannounced start of security measures requiring guards to ask visitors their citizenship — and demanding additional paperwork from those who come from countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism — had alarmed visitors and staff scientists.

Those measures are associated with a 2011 policy that covers all facilities run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including NIH, and mandates standard credentials to access buildings, networks and computer systems.

In an interview Friday afternoon, Collins said he learned about the incidents as a result of The Post’s inquiries. “I was deeply disturbed and felt I needed to get personally involved and reach out to them for how they had been treated,” he said.

The scientists described what happened to them as “troubling experiences,” Collins recalled. “One of them said, ‘When you’re a scientist, you don’t get to choose your country of birth,’ ” he said.

Collins described the problems as triggered by a “software update” that required security guards to fill out the citizenship of everyone receiving a visitor’s pass at NIH security building, known as the Gateway Center.

But neither NIH’s website, nor that of the Clinical Center, mentions that visitors or patients must disclose their citizenship, or that those from certain countries must undergo advance vetting that takes at least 10 days. The websites specify only that “visitors over 15 years of age must provide a form of government-issued ID such as a driver’s license or passport.”

There was no announcement of a policy change and few at the biomedical research center were aware of it until several visitors with Iranian citizenship were turned away.

“It was not communicated in a systematic and effective way,” Collins acknowledged. He also said that recent incidents show NIH is “erratic” in complying with the 2011 HHS policy. “We need to straighten that out,” he said.

Responding to criticism that enforcing the policy will discourage talented scientists from collaborating with the agency, Collins said: “We do want to get the best people, including those not born in the United States.” At the same time, he said, NIH is a federal institution that must adhere to federal rules. “We believe we can do that in a way that doesn’t result in onerous or painful consequences to people whose contributions we deeply value.”

An NIH official said the agency receives more than 650,000 visitors every year — of whom 18,000 are foreign nationals. The security problems have affected only a fraction of those visitors, the official said.

Kaveh Farhadi, a 31-year-old engineer from Yakima, Wash., was one of the unlucky ones. About two weeks ago, Farhadi said that security guards called NIH police and detained him for 10 to 15 minutes when he tried to donate blood at the campus.

Farhadi, an Iranian citizen, said he had given blood four or five times when he lived in the District of Columbia in 2016 and 2017 and continued to receive requests for his blood type after he moved away. On a visit last month, he decided to donate once more. But security guards brusquely informed him that he could not enter without advance clearance.

An NIH police officer made the same point, he said, saying, “’You are from Iran. You are not allowed to come to NIH like this. We need to check your background any time you want to come over here’.”

Groups representing scientists in and out of the agency have criticized NIH, with some questioning whether the policy amounts to racial profiling.

J. David Jentsch, a neuroscientist at Binghamton University in New York, tweeted he would no longer visit NIH for any reason until it stops “this inhumane profiling behavior.”

Told about Collins’s apology, he said it needs to be shared broadly.

“The policy itself affects the entire scientific community,” Jentsch said. “We as scientists include as our closest colleagues people from everywhere in the world, including those who had no choice as to where they happened to be born. But they made the choice to come to the United States and contribute to our scientific profession."

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