S.F. appeals court bars government's probes of NASA scientists
Saturday, January 12, 2008
A federal appeals court barred the Bush administration Friday from looking into the personal lives of NASA scientists and engineers who have no access to classified information, saying the probes are intrusive and unrelated to national security.
The planned inquiry into the employees' backgrounds, finances, alcohol and drug use, mental state and unspecified additional issues amounted to a "broad inquisition" with "absolutely no safeguards" that would limit disclosures to topics that are important to the government, said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by 28 scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, who were about to be fired in October for refusing to submit to the background checks when another panel of the court issued an emergency order.
The employees "face a stark choice - either violation of their constitutional rights or loss of their jobs," Judge Kim Wardlaw said in Friday's 3-0 ruling.
Their lawyer Dan Stormer said the ruling also applies to workers at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View and other NASA operations in the nine Western states covered by the Ninth Circuit.
After a hearing later Friday at which a federal judge in Los Angeles formally issued the injunction, Stormer said NASA had announced it would refrain from conducting the investigations of similar employees at any of its installations nationwide. NASA representatives were unavailable for comment.
"This is a tremendous vindication of the constitutional rights of my clients, all loyal, hardworking scientists who have dedicated their lives to the space program," Stormer said.
The injunction is to remain in effect until the case goes to trial. The government could appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
The 28 employees, most of them with at least 20 years' service, all work for the California Institute of Technology under contract to the NASA-funded Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When hired, they underwent routine background checks of their identity and criminal records, their lawyers said.
The new investigations were ordered by a number of agencies, including NASA, after President Bush issued a homeland security directive in 2004 requiring that employees at federal installations have "secure and reliable forms of identification."
To keep their jobs, employees at the agencies are required to authorize the government to seek information about them from any source, including former employers, landlords, schools and acquaintances. The sources can be asked if they have any negative information about an employee's work, truthfulness, finances, alcohol or drug use, emotional stability, overall behavior or "other matters," the court said.
Lawyers for the employees said the inquiries also may include their sexual orientation and their overall attitude.
The appeals court said it saw no relationship between Bush's 2004 order for a secure identification program and the wide-ranging investigations of "low-risk" employees. Likewise, a 1958 federal law allowing the government to fire employees who threaten national security applies only to those in sensitive positions, the court said.
The scope of the inquiry also may violate the employees' privacy rights, Wardlaw said.
The "open-ended and highly private questions are authorized by this broad, standardless waiver (that employees must sign) and do not appear narrowly tailored to any legitimate government interest," she said.
To read the appeals court ruling:
E-mail Bob Egelko at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A - 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle