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.