Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center are up in arms over a new requirement by NASA that they submit to detailed FBI scrutiny of their backgrounds in order to obtain clearance to go to work. They are claiming that the agency may be trying to control or silence them about issues like global warming.
The new security clearance requirement, which involves interviews of neighbors and checks into the distant background activities of scientists, many of whom have worked at JPL and Goddard for as long as thirty years, is puzzling because both locations have little or no involvement in secret or national security research. Indeed, by law, NASA’s activities and the research its scientists engage in are required to be publicly available.
“Almost nobody at NASA does classified work,” says Robert Nelson, a veteran scientist at JPL who heads up the photo analysis unit on the Cassini-Huygens space probe project exploring Saturn and its moons. “I think this is really all about NASA director [Michael] Griffin putting a security wrap around us.”
Nelson and 26 other JPL scientists and other employees have retained a Pasadena civil rights law firm to file suit in federal court in California to block the security program.
Attorney Dan Stormer a partner at Hadsell & Stormer, who with Virginia Keeney, is handling the case, says he will be requesting a preliminary injunction blocking implementation of the program. A hearing is set for September 24. (To date, Nelson says as many as 20 percent of JPL’s 5,000 employees have refused to fill out the security forms, though those who haven’t been investigated and received their badges risk being barred from the site after that deadline.)
“This campaign is an egregious invasion of privacy,” says Stormer. “These are people who aren’t in classified jobs and who don’t handle classified information, yet if they don’t submit to these investigations, they’ll lose their jobs.”
Stormer adds, “This is a classic Bush case of controlling information, and I’m sure the information JPL and Goddard are gathering about global warming has a lot to do with it. Do I have the evidence to prove that? No. But I think we’ll find it in this lawsuit.”
Others at JPL agree with Stormer’s analysis of what lies behind the order. While the security crackdown at NASA is technically in compliance with Homeland Security Presidential Directive No. 12, that directive is actually fairly flexible, requiring each agency to establish the identity of each employee but leaving it up to each one to decide how to do it. Significantly, even the Department of Energy, at its Los Alamos facility, where much work is top-secret, has not resorted to the kind of blanket investigations NASA has ordered for JPL and Goddard.
“Griffin came to JPL in June and told us this security decision was ‘a direct result of 9/11,'” says Dennis Byrnes, chief engineer for flight dynamics at JPL and a thirty-year veteran of the lab. “But that was a lie. Other federal research labs aren’t being required to go through this. Besides, if they’re worried about terrorists, they should be checking all the UPS trucks that drive in here, not the scientists who have worked here for decades!”
Interestingly too, the background checks are only required of permanent employees. People who come to work at JPL or Goddard for less than six months don’t need them–a curious lapse if the concern is security.
“I haven’t a doubt about the fact that the politics of global warming are behind this,” says Byrnes. He notes that NASA already tried to silence James Hansen, a leading climatologist at Goddard who has warned about the grave dangers of global climate change. Griffin caused a firestorm earlier this year when, during a National Public Radio interview, he questioned the urgency of global warming.
Nelson, who with Byrnes and other scientists has been conducting weekly leafleting campaigns at the gates of the JPL facility in Pasadena, California, urging people not to submit to the security checks, says there are a number of ways NASA leaders like Griffin could interfere with research once a security program is in place. “They’ll have personal information on all of us,” he says, “so someone could say they know about a drug incident or a girlfriend but that it will stay quiet if you change some wording in a paper set for publication. Or they can just threaten to pull your badge.”
Veronica McGregor, a spokeswoman for JPL, says JPL management had “nothing to do” with the security crackdown. “This all came from NASA,” she says.
NASA spokesman David Mould claims that the requirement for all JPL and Goddard employees to submit to invasive security investigations was mandated by the presidential directive. “We’re just following orders,” he says. But in fact, the directive states that the standard for establishing employees’ identities is to be established independently by each agency, and that agencies can use “graduated criteria, from least secure to most secure, to ensure flexibility in selecting the appropriate level of security for each application.”
For unexplained reasons, Griffin chose an extreme standard for the space agency’s two key research centers. “There is an implicit threat here that if you publish information that NASA or the government doesn’t like, they’ll pull your security clearance and you’ll be out of your job,” says attorney Stormer.