Text By Brandon Keim
Over his four decades at the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
Dennis Byrnes worked on the Apollo 7 spacecraft, set the Galileo probe
on a course to Jupiter and received a NASA Exceptional Engineering
But because Byrnes won't let federal investigators snoop into intimate details of his personal life, he could lose his job.
Byrnes is one of 28 Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) senior scientists and engineers who today sued NASA, the Department of Commerce and CalTech over background checks required of all federal employees by the Department of Homeland Security.
"We're talking about the best and brightest scientists in the world. We're talking about jet propulsion, the Mars probe, the lunar landing, Galileo, the comet landing project," said Dan Stormer of Hadsell & Stormer, the civil rights law firm representing the scientists. "And they're being asked to give up their constitutional rights in order to keep their jobs."
At issue is Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12, issued in 2004 but only recently implemented by NASA. It requires all federal employees to sign a broad privacy waiver before being approved for government work.
Though the JPL scientists are technically government contractors rather than federal employees, they're still expected to comply.
The waiver (scroll down) allows investigators to look at workers' employment, financial and medical histories. They can also question friends and colleagues about the workers' psychological health, political background and sexual proclivities.
This is legally acceptable for people in classified or highly sensitive positions, said Stormer, but none of the 28 scientists -- many of whom have been at JPL for decades -- fit that bill.
Byrnes and his colleagues have until October 27 to sign the waivers. If they don't, they'll be fired unless the court grants them an injuction against the deadline. The injunction request alleges that the government's demands violate the scientists' constitutional right to privacy.
Hearings are scheduled for September 24 at the US District Court in Los Angeles.
Beyond the legal issues, the scientists say that the background checks will discourage researchers from working for NASA and are irrelevant to their jobs.
"I can fly a spacecraft to any planet in the galaxy, and I'm being judged by people who don't have a clue as to my technical qualifications whether I'm suitable for government service," said Byrnes.
He continued, "It's already an extremely rigorous process when the labs hire someone. We check your degrees, whether you worked where you said you did. All that is normal and fine. This is something else. This is McCarthyism."
When asked for comment, NASA spokesman David Mould said, "We've been given a directive that applies to all employees, and we're carrying it out."