The Intersection

This is pretty troubling. NASA is reportedly requiring longtime career scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center to go through FBI screening similar to what you need to get a security clearance. The new scrutiny is allegedly pursuant to a Homeland Security directive, but that directive seems to allow considerably more leniency than NASA is in fact applying to these top labs, which do very “little or no” classified work. Employees are, in turn, suing NASA over the new strictures.

I’m just reporting what others have reported–in this case, my source is The Nation–but this sure sounds like another case of the Bush administration unreasonably clamping down on the activities of government scientists.


  1. #1 BrianR
    August 31, 2007

    As a part of my PhD research i’m collaborating with someone at the US Geological Survey (Dept. of Interior). Since I am not getting paid by the gov’t, I am technically a “volunteer” and the bureaucratic hoops that even I have to jump through are considerable.

    But, FBI background checks is getting to a whole new level beyond administrative hassles…sigh

    My mentor and collaborator at the USGS claims DHS really stands for Department of Hopeless Senility.

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 31, 2007

    28 JPL employees file suit over new security reviews
    By Elise Kleeman Staff Writer
    Pasadena Star-News
    Article Launched:08/30/2007 10:45:08 PM PDT

    PASADENA – Twenty-eight JPL employees filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday against NASA, the Department of Commerce and Caltech claiming the federal government is requiring invasive background checks into their personal lives.

    “By joining with my colleagues and (law firm) Hadsell & Stormer, I’m hoping to preserve the rights guaranteed to us by the Bill of Rights,” Zareh Gorjian, a 17-year JPL employee, said at a news conference at the Pasadena-based law firm.

    At issue are new regulations that all National Aeronautics and Space Administration employees and contractors are being required to follow. Employees must provide fingerprints for an FBI background check, as well as personal references and information about past residences and recreational drug use.

    Employees must also sign an open-ended waiver giving investigators access to other private records.

    “This information may include, but it not limited to, my academic, residential, achievement, performance, attendance, disciplinary, employment history and criminal record information,” the waiver reads.

    References provided by the employees are asked whether they have any adverse information about the person’s financial integrity, general behavior or conduct, mental or emotional stability or other matters.

    Charts posted on an internal JPL Web site set forth a long list of possible reasons for disbarment, including “carnal knowledge,” “sodomy,” or multiple instances of “attitude,” bad checks, drunkeness, obscene phone calls, traffic violations or loitering.

    Susan Foster, a senior technical writer specialist at JPL and employee there since 1968, said she had never been required to provide such extensive personal information in all her time at the agency.

    “I have never been asked to release that information in 40 years, even when I had a security clearance, even during the Cold War,” she said.

    Both JPL and Caltech declined to comment on the lawsuit, and Department of Commerce spokespersons did not respond to requests for an interview Thursday.

    NASA Headquarters spokesman David Mould said that the case, like all those against the federal government, would be directed to the Department of Justice.

    “We are given the rules and we carry them out,” he said. “There are no provisions for us to make exemptions for any individuals.”

    Like the vast majority of JPL employees, none of the plaintiffs now work on sensitive or high security projects. Several are senior scientists contributing to JPL’s most high-profile missions.

    Together, they are seeking an injunction against the requirement. The group said they were given until Sept. 28 to relinquish the required information or be forbidden from returning to work after Oct. 27.

    A hearing on the injunction request will be held on Sept. 24.

    The JPL employees’ legal fight is being supported in part by tens of thousands of dollars in donations from JPL employees, said Dennis Byrnes, one of the plaintiffs and JPL’s chief engineer for flight dynamics.

    “We have enough to pay the initial round of costs, and then we’ll see where it goes from there,” he said.

    The Hadsell & Stormer attorneys are donating their time for the case, he said.

    “I think we have a pretty good chance of getting an injunction,” said Dan Stormer, an attorney at the civil and human rights law firm.

    As for the success of the lawsuit itself, he said, “I think the law is on our side. I think it will depend on public opinion and public hysteria.”

    (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451

  3. #3 decrepitoldfool
    August 31, 2007

    This has a familiar feel to it – think Oppenheimer’s security clearance being revoked in 1954.

  4. #4 beldar
    August 31, 2007

    This is nuts – pure bureaucratic overkill.

    OT, but I finished your excellent “Storm World” just as Dean was heating up (no pun intended), enabling me to look at the coverage in a new way. I had no idea that there is such a divide between the climate modelers and the data-driven meteorologists. I had assumed that any skepticism about GW cut equally across all professions within the climate and atmospheric sciences. As an aside, I recently read an excerpt from Freeman Dyson’s new book on in which he admits to being a GW skeptic. He refers to himself as an elderly scientific “heretic” and stresses the need for such in all sciences. I think Gray would fit right in.

  5. #5 Fred Bortz
    August 31, 2007

    beldar writes:

    I recently read an excerpt from Freeman Dyson’s new book on in which he admits to being a GW skeptic. He refers to himself as an elderly scientific “heretic” and stresses the need for such in all sciences. I think Gray would fit right in.”

    Is that book The Scientist As Rebel? It’s a great collection of essays. Even though I disagreed with many of Dyson’s points, I gave it a very positive review.

    A-plus for provocativeness!

    Click my name for my review.

  6. #6 SLC
    September 1, 2007

    Thkere is also an article in todays’ Washington Post on this subject.

  7. #7 bigTom
    September 1, 2007

    This sounds quite a bit like the hoops for a very-high level clearance (which I once had). In addition to the onerous paperwork (trying to come up with references from a long time in the past), this sort of thing costs someone (employeer/government) several thousand dollars per person. Well I guess we need to create jobs for all the people whose previous livlihoods have been outsourced?

  8. #8 Sarah
    September 4, 2007

    These background checks are very simple and not intrusive. I’ve been through it three times. The most annoying part is coming right out of college and trying to remember your landlord’s phone number from sophomore year. This is the same level of background check that a program director at NSF or a secretary at NIH goes through. Unless you’ve done something very wrong in your past, and especially if you don’t own up to it, you won’t lose your job. And is this really any more intrusive than companies that now do full credit and background (and sometimes medical) checks on potential employees? I really think these NASA scientists are making a big deal of nothing.

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