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Student's tall tale revealed

Confesses fabricating US surveillance story

It rocketed across the Internet a week ago, a startling newspaper report that agents from the US Department of Homeland Security had visited a student at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth at his New Bedford home simply because he had tried to borrow Mao Tse-Tung's ''Little Red Book" for a history seminar on totalitarian goverments.

The story, first reported in last Saturday's New Bedford Standard-Times, was picked up by other news organizations, prompted diatribes on left-wing and right-wing blogs, and even turned up in an op-ed piece written by Senator Edward M. Kennedy in the Globe.

But yesterday, the student confessed that he had made it up after being confronted by the professor who had repeated the story to a Standard-Times reporter.

The professor, Brian Glyn Williams, said he went to his former student's house and asked about inconsistencies in his story. The 22-year-old student admitted it was a hoax, Williams said.

''I made it up," the professor recalled him saying. ''I'm sorry. . . . I'm so relieved that it's over."

The student was not identified in any reports. The Globe interviewed him Thursday but decided not to write a story about his assertion, because of doubts about its veracity. The student could not be reached yesterday.

Williams said the student gave no explanation. But Williams, who praised the student as hard-working and likeable, said he was shaken by the deception.

''I feel as if I was lied to, and I have no idea why," said Williams, an associate professor of Islamic history. He said the possibility the government was scrutinizing books borrowed by his students ''disturbed me tremendously."

The story stems from an incident in the fall in a history seminar on totalitarianism and fascism taught by a colleague of Williams, Robert Pontbriand. The student, who was in the seminar, told Pontbriand he had requested an unabridged copy of ''Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung" through the UMass interlibrary loan system for a research paper.

Days later, he told Pontbriand, he was stunned to get a visit by Homeland Security agents who told him the book was on a ''watch list" and asked why he wanted it. Pontbriand was appalled. ''A university is a place for the open inquiry for the truth," he said.

The story quickly made its way around the history department, and it might have stayed on campus if The New York Times had not broken a story about President Bush's approval of a controversial domestic spying program.

After that story, a Standard-Times reporter called Williams, who has traveled to Afghanistan for research, to ask whether he was concerned about government surveillance, Williams said.

As an afterthought, Williams said, he told the reporter about the alleged visit by the Homeland Security agents, and that became the lead of the Dec. 17 Standard-Times story.

John Hoey, spokesman for UMass-Dartmouth, said the university did not expect to take any action against the student. ''This was a conversation that took place between a student and his faculty members," Hoey said.

Dan Rosenfeld, managing editor of the newspaper, declined to comment yesterday, saying that the paper considered it a ''competitive newspaper story."

The university issued a statement Monday defending academic freedom, but said it had had no visits from Homeland Security agents and no record of any student seeking the Mao book through an interlibrary loan.

The student later told the professors he had requested the book at UMass-Amherst. But officials there said UMass-Dartmouth students cannot use their ID cards at the Amherst library and that all interlibrary requests are made by the libraries, not students.

A Homeland Security spokeswoman in Washington said she had no record of any interview of a UMass-Dartmouth student and pointed out that the department does not have its own agents. An FBI spokeswoman in Boston also expressed doubt.

That didn't stop it from buzzing around the Internet and even being picked up by Kennedy, who cited it as the latest example of the Bush administration's intrusion on civil liberties.

''Incredibly, we are now in an era where reading a controversial book may be evidence of a link to terrorist," he wrote in an op-ed piece in Thursday's Globe.

Laura Capps, a Kennedy spokeswoman, said last night that the senator cited ''public reports" in his opinion piece. Even if the assertion was a hoax, she said, it did not detract from Kennedy's broader point that the Bush administration has gone too far in engaging in surveillance.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.

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