Published Thursday, March 20, 2008 4:10 AM PDT


JPL background check from the front line

“Profound silence” is how Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists Bob Nelson described the response received from local and federal politicians when contacted about “invasive” background checks.

Nelson is one of 28 JPL employees who brought a lawsuit against NASA/Caltech for what they claim is a violation of constitutional rights.

Nelson spoke to members of the La Cañada Flintridge Democrat Club on Sunday along with fellow JPL employee Susan Paradise.

In early 2007, NASA and Caltech informed employees that they would be required to submit to a new type of background check in accordance to Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12.

Nelson pointed out that only a small percentage of employees at JPL work in high security areas, that most partner in missions with other countries where information is freely available.

Also, that the directive is not a law and that other government agencies have not interpreted the directive with the strick view that NASA administration has.

Nelson commented on how difficult the lawsuit has been and how the battle continues. Before the employees decided to bring the suit against NASA they contacted many politicians.

“We realized this was not a legal battle but a political one,” Nelson said.

They didn’t get the political response they had hoped for at the beginning of their quest but as the days past they got more support.

Congressman David Dreier threw in his support and Adam Schiff has been very supportive, Nelson said. But they are still political officials that have stayed away from the subject.

The idea to bring a suit against NASA was not the first thing that came to the employees’ minds, Nelson said. The first was to question the JPL and Caltech managers and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin when he visited the campus shortly after the background checks were announced.

“When we asked about [Griffin] the checks he said ‘If you don’t like it I hope you like working somewhere else,” Nelson said. “He was really our best recruiter.”

Nelson and 27 other JPL employees decided to take NASA and Caltech to court.

It wasn’t because they had anything to hide, Nelson added. They had all gone through background checks in the past. It was the SF85 form that they were asked to complete that concerned them.

The 11-page form required basic information, as in every background check but with some additions including open-ended questions that could lead to extensive investigation, Nelson said.

“It could turn into a fishing expedition,” Nelson said of the investigation into the employees’ sexual and medical history.

His coworker Paradise reviewed with Nelson the history of the lawsuit with the audience. Throughout the meeting, whispers of “Big Brother is watching” could be heard. Paradise said she didn’t start out thinking that way but the longer time passes the more she is swayed.

Right now they will continue their fight. Attorney Keeny said that a final decision in the case could take several months to a year or more. That takes money. The employees are paying for the legal fees out of their own pockets however they have been getting donations from fellow scientists.

“I was at a seminar a while back and a grad student came and handed me money,” Nelson said. “He said he didn’t have a lot but thought their fight was his fight as well.”

Nelson said what they really need are people to write letters to all the politicians in California and throughout the country.

“Keep this out there in the public and political debates,” he said.