NASA will check backgrounds despite criticism

NASA is going forward with what some are calling "invasive" background checks at all but one of its field centers despite ongoing litigation to end the process at that facility, NASA officials said Thursday.

On Wednesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California heard arguments in the case of nearly 30 California Institute of Technology scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They sued NASA on behalf of a class of the lab's employees to stop the background checks.

The background investigations are part of a new homeland security directive that requires all federal agencies to issue standard identification cards after conducting thorough checks of workers and contractors who enter government buildings and computer systems. The California scientists -- all of whom work on non-classified space-exploration projects -- will need the new cards to access the lab.

The employees contend that the wording in a vague, broad waiver they must sign or forfeit their jobs allows investigators to violate their civil rights. On Oct. 11, the court temporarily barred the lab from requiring employees to undergo the checks.

Aside from the lab, none of NASA's other centers have postponed collecting background-check agreements from employees, agency spokesman David Mould said.

Concurrently, NASA officials are re-investigating some existing civil-servant employees. Re-investigations are not required as part of the directive but are now required by NASA if an employee has not been investigated in the past 10 years.

Lee Stone, with the NASA Council of Locals of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said on Thursday that the union is "extremely concerned about the new background checks that have just started" at NASA's Glenn Research Center for all existing employees who fall under that category.

"NASA's plans for a blanket re-investigation of its existing civil-service employees is at best a waste of taxpayers' money, diverting limited security dollars away from real threats, and at worst a McCarthy-esque abuse of power," he said.

The union is now considering its options for recourse.

Lab Senior Research Scientist Robert Nelson, a plaintiff in the case, said he was pleased with Wednesday's court proceedings. "Our attorneys are thinking of seeing a decision within days to weeks -- not a year" as is sometimes possible, he said.

One issue the case has raised is the potential for recruitment headaches at NASA. The plaintiffs argued that the checks and "waiver of privacy rights" -- both of which "are antithetical to the type of autonomy and academic freedom" that science research demands -- will deter talent from applying for work at the lab.

Keith Cowing, editor of and a former NASA scientist, agreed. "This may come back to bite NASA in the very near future when it realizes that it needs some of the very people it is now imposing strict background requirements upon."

Implementing the policy government-wide could actually be detrimental to homeland security because of the resulting "mix of unfilled positions at federal agencies -- positions that are vital to our nation's economy and security," he said.


  • I wonder why no one has mentioned the cost of this program, not just in human terms, but in limited budget dollars. For NASA to institutionalize these investigations (even the Army limits the numbers it investigates), which probably cost on the order of $50K or more apiece, without making any judgment on the impact to their operations and acquisition costs is shortsighted at best. Contractors will charge this back to the government and without specifying shared information with other government agencies, future employers, etc., NASA guarantees repeated investigation of the same contractors. By not specifying who will investigate, what the standards are they investigate against, and what constitutes failure to identify oneself (after all, that's the purpose of HSPD-12, identification), NASA almost certainly will have increased litigation costs. How will they fly, research, and explore? How much bureaucracy can the agency handle? Please don't answer that...after all, it's NASA.
  • Keep in mind that something is funny with the whole affair. And it's worse than the article implies, because investigations are being done on people with no relation to classified info who have been in the government a hell of a lot longer than just 10 years. I've been NASA for 33 years; haven't had a security clearance for 12 years, don't need one now, nor in the future. (Not sure I'd accept if it was offered anymore, in fact.) Yet they are spending time and effort - processing forms, interview, et al - on someone like me in 2007, when they can't possibly have gone through all the people in government with more involvement with true security issues. This sort of blanket security sweep with limited resources does not make us more secure; it makes us less secure. And it gives security people inordinate power, over people for whom there is no reason -at all - to believe there is a security issue. For example, I was declared in violation of not submitting my forms - at all - because they didn't like how I answered one question. Now, I filled out the forms; I signed them, submitted them. And they were declared to be non-existant because of personal preference. I submitted again, but with a caveat also written into the signature form (that I had also included the first attempt), stating that my signature was approval for government investigators - not contractors - to do the data gathering. Rejected, again; even though there was no objection to the actual data I submitted. I either took it off - or lost my (non-classified) job, after 33 years. That's bad security practice; and it is also an abuse of power. I'm wondering how many other stories of excess are also out there that we are not hearing about.
  • I believe, that everybody who does work for the government, should be investigated to some degree. I have undergone such investigations before my retirement, since I had nothing to hide. Those individuals, that are protesting, must something to hide, as I highly suspect. I know many of them, and know what goes on at these facilities. Also, any body can be replaced. There are many, who would happily replace them.