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The moon, Mars and now the Supreme Court

A Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist whose career started on the Apollo program in 1968 heads to Washington to fight background checks for NASA's JPL staffers.

October 05, 2010|By Dennis V. Byrnes

I am the chief engineer for flight mechanics at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a NASA center operated under federal government contract by the California Institute of Technology. My responsibilities include technical oversight and review of all aspects of spacecraft dynamics, trajectory design, mission design and navigation for all missions at JPL from the earliest studies to the completion of flight operations. I also serve on several review boards for other NASA missions outside of JPL. But today, I will be at the Supreme Court listening to my lawyer argue against the acting solicitor general of the United States.

I began my career in 1968, working on the Apollo program, which landed the first humans on the moon. Over the last four decades, I have worked on the Viking Mars landers, the Voyager project to explore the outer solar system, the Galileo exploration of Jupiter and many other missions. Even though I am beyond normal retirement age, I love my work and wish to continue doing it. I am told by my peers, associates and by JPL and NASA management that I am very good at what I do. During my long career, my loyalty to my country has never been questioned.

I am not a civil servant. My duties do not include classified or sensitive work of any kind. The results of my work are publicly available. The scientific results of missions that I work on are publicly available on various JPL and NASA websites, sometimes just minutes after scientists receive the data from the spacecraft. As is the case with 97% of the people who work at JPL, NASA deems my position "low-risk."

However, in 2007, I and all other JPL employees were told that we would be required to submit detailed personal data and sign a release form allowing investigators to look at all aspects of our personal lives. Anyone who refused would lose their access to JPL; in essence, they would be fired. I, and many of my colleagues, found this appalling and quite unacceptable.

For many years, as a hiring manager at JPL, I was the one who decided which potential employees had the qualifications and skills to do this work — sending incredibly complex spacecraft to the farthest reaches of the solar system. I took that responsibility very, very seriously. To succeed, we need the most creative and talented people we can find.

But NASA and the federal government do not view our work with the same seriousness. Under this new regimen, bureaucrats and investigators with no scientific or engineering background will decide who has access to JPL, even though we do not do classified work. And the criteria for suitability will apparently include irrelevant information about our personal lives. This is an insult to our professional and personal integrity.

You may ask what can be so bad? The full answer is long; however, the release form required to keep one's job gives part of the answer:

"I authorize any investigator, special agent, or other duly accredited representative of the authorized federal agency conducting my background investigation, to obtain any information relating to my activities from schools, residential management agents, employers, criminal justice agencies, retail business establishments, or other sources of information. This information may include, but is not limited to, my academic, residential, achievement, performance, attendance, disciplinary, employment history, and criminal history record information." [Emphasis added]. Additionally, if other releases are required for things such as medical records or tax forms, they too must be given.

The administrator of NASA, at a public meeting at JPL in 2007, told me, "If you do not like the situation, you should go to court." In August 2007, scientist Robert Nelson, the lead plaintiff, 26 other JPL employees and I did exactly that. The U.S. Justice Department, representing NASA, lost several appeals at the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. It appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where oral arguments will be heard today.

I want to be very clear. Neither I nor any of the plaintiffs have anything to hide. I care nothing for my personal privacy. I care for the terrible damage being done to the guarantees of our Constitution. I care for the loss of trust most of us once had in our government. I care that the longstanding trust and collegiality between engineers and scientists at JPL and their management is being destroyed and replaced by a poisoned atmosphere of mistrust by employees and heavy-handed paternalism by management. I care that all across the country, many talented technical people will leave government service or choose not to apply in the first place because of this unwarranted assault on their constitutional freedoms. I fear that carried to its natural end, this process, with its false promise of national security at the expense of freedom, will forever damage our country.

The justification for these background investigations stems from a Homeland Security presidential directive issued by President George W. Bush in 2004. However, that directive only required "a common identification standard for federal employees and contractors." The implementation of this directive converted the "identification" standard into a requirement for background investigations to determine "suitability."

President Obama, in a speech during the 2008 presidential campaign, promised to "review all Homeland Security presidential directives issued by President Bush." Sadly, that review appears not to have extended to considering constitutional privacy protections.

Thus, I will be at the Supreme Court today, listening to lawyers argue about whether the Constitution provides government contractors with personal privacy.

Dennis V. Byrnes is principal engineer and chief engineer for flight mechanics at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. These views are his own. Website: http://www.hspd12jpl.org

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