September 14, 2007
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Modified Sep 06, 2007 - 04:10:34 PDT

JPL scientists sue over background checks

A hearing is scheduled to be held Sept. 24 for a lawsuit brought by 27 scientists and one engineer from Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center against NASA/JPL who object to a new background check requirement, saying it is an invasion of privacy.

“These scientists [and the engineer] work in non-sensitive, unclassified areas,” said attorney Dan Stormer, a partner at Hadsell and Stormer who represents the plaintiffs.

A Bush administration directive requires new background checks for all government employees. The executive order is titled Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12.

“This is standard,” said David Mould, NASA assistant administrator for public affairs. “Federal agencies need to be in compliance.”

There are two types of background checks, one that requires a minimal check, the other that can be quite extensive. The latter can include FBI interviews with the employees neighbors and friends.

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Investigators may also look into the scientists’ medical records and even sexual history, all of which are privacy violations, according to Stormer.

Stormer said it is curious NASA would require these specific scientists to comply with the extensive background check.

“They have nothing to do with classified information,” Stormer said, “and nothing with the military.”

He added that many of the scientists involved in the suit made it a point when they were hired that their work would not deal with the military.

But NASA attorney Mould said, “If you are accessing information or are on certain computer systems [the check is required].”

Stormer said he understands that if these scientists were in contact with classified material, this type of background check would be required, however his clients do not fall into that category.

Many of them have been with JPL on some of its more visible missions like the recent Cassini investigation of Saturn, and some have been employed there for more than 30 years.

“These people are the top scientists, they have not chosen careers in the defense industry,” Stormer said.

Mould said that there was not a recent security breech or any concerns about scientists at JPL to prompt this action, that the agency is just complying with the government’s policy.

However the directive does have flexibility with each agency deciding how the background checks are administrated.

The fact that NASA has chosen this method of checking those who do not require a high security clearance is curious, Stormer said, and the future for what the government can require is worrisome to the scientists.

“It is part of the Bush administration assault on the Constitution, ” he said.

The scientists are required to comply with the background checks by Oct. 27, Mould said. “Over half the [JPL] employees have complied.”

The future for the other half will depend on what Stormer and his clients do in court.

“The scientists are afraid they will lose their jobs if they don’t agree,” Stormer said.

Mould would not directly comment on whether non-compliance would mean firing of the scientists.

“This is a requirement. . . the job requires a security clearance,” he said.
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