The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NIH police yank Iranian graduate student from lab as agency clamps down on security

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)

The National Institutes of Health is requiring all visitors — including patients — to disclose their citizenship as a condition of entry, a policy that has unnerved staff scientists and led to recent disputes with at least two Iranian scientists invited to make presentations, only to be blocked from campus.

In one incident, a Georgetown University graduate student arriving for a job interview was held up at security, then allowed to proceed to one of the campus buildings. But as he prepared to make a presentation, NIH police arrived, removed him from a lab and escorted him off campus, according to a complaint Monday to a group that represents staff scientists.

In another, a brain researcher said he was told to leave, then delayed at security for nearly an hour filling out online forms. After interventions by NIH police and other officials, he was told an exception had been made that would allow him to deliver his presentation to the two dozen waiting researchers.

Both men had green cards and U.S. driver’s licenses and had previously visited NIH without incident. The two seem to have come under particular scrutiny as citizens of Iran, one of four countries classified as state sponsors of terrorism by the State Department.

“I am very surprised and disappointed that there are all these restrictions,” said the brain researcher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his relationships at NIH. He said he worked at NIH from 2009 to 2014 on an H-1B visa and had been invited to speak on his specialty last week. As recently as two months ago, he said, he had no problem entering the campus.

NIH officials say the policy is not new — although they acknowledge posting a sign recently that says all visitors must disclose their citizenship in the NIH security building, known as the Gateway Center. People who work at the Bethesda, Md., campus said they had never heard of such questioning until the past few weeks.

An April 2 email obtained by The Washington Post describes a senior-level meeting Tuesday, at which the chief executive of the NIH Clinical Center, James Gilman, recounted how a long-standing policy “was never followed, and apparently in the past few days, security started following it, including signs at the visitor entrances that say they will ask for it [citizenship],” according to a person who attended the meeting.

A spokesman for NIH said Gilman denies having said that.

The tightened security at the biomedical research center comes as the agency is under mounting pressure to more strictly scrutinize potential security risks. In recent months, NIH and the FBI have warned U.S. scientists to beware of Chinese spies intent on stealing biomedical research from NIH-funded laboratories at universities.

Under pressure from lawmakers, led by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), NIH said in January it had referred 12 allegations of foreign influence over U.S. research to the HHS inspector general.

Grassley’s staff and NIH security have received several classified and unclassified briefings in recent months, at which they and security experts demanded the agency be more aggressive about vetting foreign researchers before giving them access to facilities and research money, the senator’s aides said.

NIH — a research institution built on collaboration — is apparently following protocols used by federal security agencies that deal with highly sensitive or classified information and require top-secret security clearances for their employees. Visitors to those facilities must disclose their citizenship, and foreign nationals are provided with a badge different from those worn by U.S. citizens, security officials said.

The change rankles some scientists, both inside and outside the agency, who fear the new rules will have a chilling effect on a campus where visitors and permanent scientific staff from around the world are an everyday part of the landscape.

The policy has also sparked concerns about ethnic and racial profiling.

“These individuals have already been vetted,” said Ryan Costello, policy director at the National Iranian American Council. “They’re green-card holders, they have been participating in U.S. life for years, contributing to scientific knowledge. It’s really ridiculous to be suspected solely on their national origin.”

One NIH researcher, G. Marius Clore, forwarded a complaint Monday to an elected committee that represents scientific staff, according to a summary of his remarks obtained by The Post. In the summary, Clore is quoted as saying that the incident involving the Georgetown graduate student is “something that [NIH leadership] needs to address right away. If this sort of thing gets out, nobody is going to want to come and work at NIH.”

In the email complaint to the governing council of NIH’s Assembly of Scientists, he said the unnamed Georgetown student — an Iranian citizen and a permanent U.S. resident — had entered the campus twice in recent weeks without problems, according to a summary of events prepared after the meeting.

On March 19, NIH police and security guards initially allowed the student to proceed to his job interview after inquiring about his nationality and reviewing his green card. But as he was preparing to give his presentation, they showed up at the lab and escorted him out, in front of others, Clore said

Clore did not return phone calls or emails seeking more information about the incident. The Washington Post could not independently confirm the events.

The Assembly of Scientists’ 24-member governing council has asked to discuss the matter with Michael Gottesman, NIH’s deputy director, at a meeting Friday, a person familiar with the events said.

An NIH spokeswoman said she was aware of the incidents. “In both instances, the necessary paperwork was not completed,” spokeswoman Renate Myles said Wednesday. The policy of requiring all visitors to reveal their citizenship “may not be applied uniformly, but should be,” she said.

The sign at NIH’s Gateway Center cites Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 — a 2004 policy set out by the Department of Homeland Security seeking a uniform standard for identifying federal employees and contractors in the post-9/11 era, to minimize security risks. It was updated in 2011 to require agencies to develop policies on the credentials needed to enter their buildings, networks and computer systems.

Myles said people from Iran, Syria, North Korea and Sudan — the four nations considered state sponsors of terrorism — have been required for years to obtain advance permission to visit any facility that is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, including NIH.

The application must be approved by the HHS Office of National Security and can take at least 10 days, she said.

People who work at NIH said they had never encountered such requests.

“If I forget my ID, I have to go to the Gateway Center [security building] like anybody else,” an American scientist aware of the complaint about the Georgetown graduate student said Tuesday. “They give me a temporary day pass. They’ve never asked me my nationality. So I don’t know how they decide who gets asked.”

The brain researcher said he has entered NIH as a visitor countless times, using just his driver’s license. That changed on March 26.

“My understanding is there has been a change; somebody has changed some policy,” he said.

Carol Morello contributed to this report.

NIH seeks health data of 1 million people, with genetic privacy suddenly an issue

NIH cancels $100 million study of moderate drinking as inescapably compromised

How Trump’s travel ban could hurt science