Judge to bar NASA background checks on drugs for time being

LOS ANGELES: A federal judge said he planned to temporarily bar NASA from asking workers at one of its research centers during background checks whether they had ever used drugs.

The drug use question was only a small part of a lawsuit filed by 28 scientists, engineers and staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena who claimed the new security measures invaded their privacy. They include senior scientists and engineers on high-profile missions including the Galileo probe to Jupiter and the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn.

U.S. District Court Judge Otis Wright said Monday he wanted to balance workers' rights with national security.

"I don't want to see these employees hurt ... but I want the security of this nation preserved," Wright said. "I don't want any sleepers infiltrating NASA or JPL."

Wright's written order was expected later this week. He set an Oct. 19 hearing to decide whether to grant a broader injunction preventing NASA from asking other personal questions.

JPL employees have until Friday to fill out forms authorizing the background checks. Those who do not will be barred from JPL and be "voluntarily terminated" as of Oct. 27.

The crux of the issue revolves around an executive order signed by President George W. Bush in 2004 requiring all government agencies to issue new identification badges to millions of civil servants and contractors to get access to federal buildings and computers.

To obtain the badges, workers must be fingerprinted, provide detailed personal information and sign a waiver allowing open-ended investigations.

Attorneys for the JPL employees said none of their clients pose a security threat because they work in non-classified projects.

JPL workers objected to divulging past drug use and worried that the information might fall into the wrong hands, their lawyers said.

"There is really no need for this," said attorney Dan Stormer, adding that most have worked at JPL for decades and had their identities verified without an exhaustive background check.

A lawyer for NASA, Vesper Mei, countered that JPL is not alone in requiring the background checks and that all federal agencies are being asked to carry out the presidential directive. Mei denied the government was "infringing" on workers' privacy.

Both sides faced tough questioning from Wright, who said he found the lawsuit to be cobbled together hastily.

The plaintiffs are employees of the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA under a federal contract. Caltech was also named in the lawsuit, along with the Commerce Department, which promulgates the new federal ID standards.

Caltech attorney Mark Holscher said the university should not be held responsible because "the core dispute is between the plaintiffs and NASA."

Of the 5,000 JPL employees, 4,100 have begun the badging process, Holscher said.

Earlier this year, frustrated workers flooded their congressmen with letters and phone calls and vented to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin at an internal meeting in June.

Griffin said those who refused to comply with the presidential directive cannot work for the government.

JPL, nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles, is one of NASA's top research centers focusing on robotic missions to the solar system.

Although the lab prides itself on its university atmosphere, it has undergone security enhancements similar to other NASA centers after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The space agency began issuing a uniform NASA badge for all workers, which was later replaced by the new ID required by the federal directive.

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On the Net:

Jet Propulsion Laboratory: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov

California Institute of Technology: http://www.caltech.edu

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