Twenty-eight scientists, engineers and other workers at one of NASA’s top research centers filed suit in federal court yesterday challenging new security measures, including questions about loyalty and sexual orientation, that they say violate their constitutional rights.
The employees work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which is operated for NASA under contract by the California Institute of Technology. More than 5,000 workers at the laboratory are not government employees but work for the university or other contractors.
To obtain new ID badges, NASA is requiring private workers at all installations to provide detailed background information and sign waivers allowing open-ended checks of past employment, questioning of former employers and neighbors, fingerprinting and other measures.
Civil servants have long had to undergo background checks. But in the suit — filed in federal court in the Central District of California in Los Angeles against NASA, Caltech and the Commerce Department — the plaintiffs say the new security checks required of nongovernment workers invade their privacy and violate other rights. The suit may grow to include other employees. A hearing was set for Sept. 24.
David R. Mould, an assistant administrator of NASA, said the review of the Pasadena laboratory employees was “a standard background check for security clearance” that applied equally across all executive-branch government agencies to people using certain information and equipment.
According to instructions provided by the propulsion laboratory, employees have until early October to submit security forms and schedule fingerprinting appointments or they could lose their jobs.
In the past, the laboratory had the open feel of an academic institution, but after the Sept. 11 attacks, there has been a security clampdown.
The space agency, along with other government agencies, began developing a uniform identification system for workers at all federal sites under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, an executive order signed by President Bush in 2004.
In a news conference and telephone conference call yesterday, several plaintiffs voiced frustrations with the procedures, which they described as overly aggressive given that they had all worked at the center for years, and in some cases four decades.
“By signing this supposed voluntary waiver I’m giving government investigators or whomever they designate the right to look into all areas of my private life,” said Zareh Gorjian, who develops animation and other presentations related to space missions and has worked at the laboratory for 17 years. “I was at J.P.L. during the cold war when we were fighting the Soviet Union, which had the power not only to end all life in the U.S. but the entire planet. We were able to defeat them without resorting to such intrusive tactics.”