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NASA Scientists Challenge Security Rules

Wary of government efforts to silence global warming research, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and Goddard Space Flight Center are going to court to block new security rules, Dave Lindorff reports.

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08/31/2007 @ 03:32am

Mr. Lindorff's article on the HSPD-12 "voluntary" rebadging lawsuit against NASA, JPL and Caltech is on target, but he, like many outside of JPL and NASA Goddard, has missed the implications in the fine print that make Mike Griffin's and the Department of Commerce's actions against NASA employees so outrageous.

Is it really about global warming? Maybe. Is it about shutting down a good chunk of scientific exploration and redirecting the money toward an impractical quasi-military fantasy like SDI (a k a "Star Wars")? Is it about undercutting California's space enterprise by slashing JPL, only a year after Caltech had its oversight of the labs renewed, and attempting to move a large chunk of that research and contractor business to Texas? We don't know. Any of those motives is possible. None is likely to succeed very well or very quietly if attempted, but it could unravel the reason Americans are still willing to fund space exploration.

Until the JPL employees' lawsuit was announced yesterday, this story had gotten little media coverage outside of Pasadena's local newspaper and a couple of NASA- and space-following online magazines. So the really insidious aspects have been hidden behind a pleasant, good-for-security, good-for-the-nation, no-big-deal facade. Our local senators have been notified in the last few weeks, but I'm not sure that anyone's even contacted Governor Schwarzenegger's office. Even if he doesn't deal with federal issues, there are a lot of potential disruptions to California law and business, and the stakes are high.

NASA has persisted in calling its invasive background check for "rebadging" a "voluntary" procedure and "standard." It isn't. JPL employees have been told by upper management and by HR and security representatives that anyone who doesn't comply, in full, and fill out the Office of Procurement Management forms completely, or who does not sign a blanket waiver of his or her privacy rights in perpetuity for the information demanded "will be assumed to have filed a resignation." And none of the other agencies are doing it. It's not standard.

The waivers cover release of medical, personal finance, mental health, employment, criminal records for anything over a $150 traffic ticket, family and relatives, and much other very personal and largely security-irrelevant information. NASA's privacy declaration pretty much spells out that any such information gathered can be passed on to anyone the investigators or the agencies so choose, including unspecified contractors, and the criteria for "appropriate use" are quite vague. There are no de facto limits on third party use of the information, and once out, the horses cannot be gathered back in. Worse, the forms are to be submitted online.

Second, JPL's claim that it has had no role in exacerbating the violations of employee rights started by DoC and NASA is disingenuous at best. JPL's human resources department has sent employees instructions suggesting heavily that they must fill out and sign the forms within 10 days of receiving them in order not to be terminated (again, "voluntarily"). The actual deadline is in October. In July, when JPL realized a sizeable number of senior employees weren't just going to roll over and play dead, but were going to ask very uncomfortable questions, it quickly pulled its HSPD-12 FAQ out of public view and substituted a very bland, upbeat, deceptive and uninformative NASA FAQ site for public access.

Third, it's easy to assume from NASA's representation and surface-level documentation that the FBI will be conducting the employee background checks. Not so. The FBI is not part of Homeland Security. This invasive background check, which bears little resemblance to the aims stated in the one-page HSPD-12 itself, is a 100 percent Department of Commerce concoction. According to the DoC Office of Security information webpage on the "rebadging" process for HSPD-12, "Everyone issued an ID badge must have a favorable background investigation, including a FBI fingerprint check; for most people, this will mean a National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI)."

Employee fingerprints will be entered into and checked against the FBI criminal fingerprint image database. That's all the FBI involvement. Actual background investigations will be led, ordered, and conducted by hirees of the DoC, most of whom will be "HR specialists", according to the FAQ, not FBI agents, as is standard for actual security clearance investigations.

Fourth, employees who pass the background check will not actually receive any kind of security clearance status, which might have been a benefit for promotion and allowed them to qualify for a higher salary range.

Fifth, FBI agents undergo extensive training for background investigation work. What kind of training will the Department of Commerce provide? Take a look at the web page cited above before they pull it out of sight (HSPD-12 FAQ Point 9):

How will all these HSPD-12 officials be trained?
  •  Web-based training is available on the OSY web page for all personnel in the process (Enrollment Official, Registrar, Applicant, etc).
  •  Training will take less than 10 minutes.

The costs of implementation are to be paid for from NASA funds, to the tune of $112-160 million for the first year, and $6 million from JPL funds, according to the plaintiffs' organization and based on information presented to them by upper management in JPL meetings over the last year.

That alone means directing big bucks away from actual space research and design projects.

However, don't expect those rosy estimates to last. Given the recent shining example of the US Passport Office's ability to forecast manpower and costs of operation, you could expect NASA costs to double, triple, or more in the next year if allowed to go forward.

There are currently something like 19,000 NASA employees and untold numbers of long-term essential contractors (Cisco Systems, anyone?) whose employees could be subjected to this extensive investigation process. Between the logistics, the legal ramifications of coercing privacy waivers from current employees in good standing, and the attempt to attract next-generation enterprise collaborations with Fortune 500 companies that, unlike the DoC and NASA, seem to recognize that they're obligated to follow employment law, the costs are going to go up. And up. Anyone in NASA with more common sense and dedication to space research than Mike Griffin must be hoping the JPL employees' lawsuit injunction goes through before this operation tears a big gaping hole in NASA funding and credibility.

  • Deborah Noble
  • Pasadena, CA

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Dave Lindorff is co-author, with Barbara Olshansky, of The Case for Impeachment: The Legal Argument for Removing President George W. Bush from Office (St. Martin's). His work is available at



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