Internationally recognized for their efforts to reveal the secrets of our universe, Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists have suddenly found themselves as potential subjects of a vast government probe.
To comply with Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, a 2004 White House mandate that all who access government equipment go through a standard identification process and receive new electronic access cards, JPL employees must allow federal agencies to peek into their personal lives or be forced to leave their jobs.
According to one document associated with the multi-agency implementation of HSPD-12 — labeled “suitability matrix” and posted without much explanation on a Web site about the process that is accessible to JPL employees — investigators could be looking into anything from minor traffic violations to bounced checks, incidents of unlawful assembly and behaviors such as off-the-clock drinking, adultery and even homosexuality.
“Homosexuality, in and of itself, while not a suitability issue, may be a security issue and must be addressed completely, when indications are present of possible susceptibility to coercion or blackmail,” reads that document under a section titled “Loyalty and Security.” Under a “Qualifications” section, it discusses physical health issues as well as “mental, emotional, psychological or psychiatric issues.” Other sections include “Financial Responsibility” and “Criminal and Immoral Conduct.”
“To me it looks like something straight out of the '50s, during the McCarthy era. That's the kind of thing that many of us are very afraid of, that this is a broad intrusion into our personal and civil rights,” said Dennis Byrnes, JPL's chief engineer for flight dynamics and one of a growing number of local scientists resisting HSPD-12 compliance.
Another is Robert Nelson, a senior JPL research scientist and the lead scientist for NASA's New Millennium Program to advance space flight technology.
“It seems to us a fruitless venture in the War on Terror. This is a security apparatus that has gotten out of control, using 9/11 as a pretext to gather background information on innocent civilians, and in our case, engineers and scientists who are not doing classified research,” said Nelson.
Nelson also said that about 100 JPL researchers have joined an Internet list serve about HSPD-12 implementation, and that a few of them have contacted attorneys about whether to challenge the procedure in court.
Although JPL scientists are employed by Caltech and rarely engage in classified research, the facility, located on the border of Pasadena and La Cañada Flintridge, is owned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), making anyone there subject to the new provision.
“If you have access to government facilities, then you need to go through the exact same initial background check [as federal employees], fingerprinting and some paperwork about your background,” said Bob Jacobs, NASA's deputy assistant administrator for public affairs in Washington.
If JPL employees do not obtain new ID cards by Oct. 28 they will not be allowed to return to work, said JPL Manager of Media Relations Veronica McGregor.
Making that deadline will require employees to sign off on a background check weeks in advance, which 4,065 out of some 5,000 already have, she said.
Joining Nelson and Byrnes among those who haven't is Scott Maxwell, whose job it is to drive the famed Spirit and Opportunity rovers by remote as they explore the surface of Mars.
“It seems like a big waste of taxpayer money to snoop around the private lives of long-term, loyal JPL people. Most of these people lead pretty boring lives. My own private life is intensely boring, but the fact is that it's my private life and I shouldn't have to sacrifice that to keep my job,” he said. “They want the ability to snoop around our personal lives without limit, and I don't feel comfortable surrendering that principle. If they aren't going to do it, why do they need a piece of paper that says they can?”
The scope of investigations related to HSPD-12 remains unclear in many ways.
Jacobs pointed out that HSPD-12 is not a NASA initiative, but as a government agency it will be forced to comply with orders regulating federal facilities.
Jacobs added that the commonly held notion that background checks would delve into employees' personal or financial histories is not true — something of a JPL urban legend.
But some of the process, however, is out of NASA's hands and involves at least two other federal agencies.
Guidelines for the implementation of the HSPD-12-mandated electronic ID cards were formulated by the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology in a lengthy document titled Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) 201.
According to a letter from the former NIST Director William Jeffrey to New Jersey Democratic Congressman Rush Holt, a former physicist who was contacted by concerned JPL employees including Nelson, the FIPS-201 process “contains no requirement for the review of the financial or medical history of any employee or contractor” but asks for fingerprinting and a background check that for decades has already been required of all federal employees on hiring.
JPL employees seeking a new ID badge must fill out an application that calls for past employment and residence information along with information about Selective Service enrollment and at least three character references. That information, said JPL's McGregor, is collected and used by another federal agency, the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
The OPM is referred to by name within a section of the so-called suitability matrix — which does contain references to financial and medical information, as stated above — as the only agency which may debar an applicant for as long as three years, although it reads that “Agencies may impose [debarment] up to one year”
“They could use the suitability criteria to get rid of anyone they want,” fears Byrnes. “This is part of what we read about in the papers every day in terms of warrantless wiretapping and all of those activities many of us think don't have any place in American life.”
Ultimately, Byrnes' “they” will be NASA management, who make the final decision regarding whether an employee is suitable to receive a security clearance badge, said McGregor.
But if things weren't confusing enough, Jacobs wrote in an email that NASA uses suitability criteria that are devised by the OPM, citing lengthy procedures that in part read: “Minimum investigative requirements correlating to risk levels will be established in supplemental guidance provided by OPM.”
McGregor, Jacobs and a spokesman for the OPM were unable to identify the source of the suitability matrix document by press time, but McGregor confirmed it had in fact been posted to the internal JPL HSPD-12 Web site.
Members of Holt's congressional staff were also unfamiliar with that document, but Holt had already seen enough to decry the HSPD-12 process.
“Instead of bolstering national security, HSPD-12 will undermine it,” he said in a statement to the Weekly. “Subjecting employees and contractors — including those doing no sensitive work — to invasive background checks via HSPD-12 could lead to the resignations and firings of dedicated civil servants. The president should direct [Homeland Security] Secretary [Michael] Chertoff to rescind HSPD-12 implementation, and the Congress should investigate how this Orwellian directive came about in the first place.”
Pasadena Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff has also taken up the matter, sending a letter to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin on May 9 asking questions about how information collected under HSPD-12 will be used and safeguarded.
“We need to ensure the safety of our staff and information, and I am fully committed to that goal. At the same time, we must ensure that we are not gathering personal information unrelated to security concerns, and that personal information is not improperly disseminated,” wrote Schiff.
East San Gabriel Valley Republican Congressman David Dreier was contacted by Byrnes several months ago but, after speaking with Caltech and JPL officials, he responded by referring Byrnes back to JPL Director Charles Elachi.
Although no one has announced it publicly, Nelson said some JPL employees are thinking they may quit the institution rather than comply.
“A real fear is that this reduces our access to the most competent engineers and scientists for work on the space program,” he said. “We can't do it with people who are second-best.”