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Security Obsession Drives 100 Scientists from NASA

by DAVE LINDORFF

Up on the planet Mars, there is a complex new rover named Curiosity that is driving around looking for evidence of possible life. Its every little finding is readily broadcast around the world, as was done today at a televised conference in California, to be analyzed by scientists in the US, in Europe, in China, and even in Iran.

The scientists and engineers who are managing that remarkable vehicle, as well as the fantastically successful Cassini probe orbiting Saturn, the Kepler satellite that is discovering all those planets orbiting distant stars, and all the other various satellites and space probes launched by NASA, however, are not as free as the space probes they are running.

Thanks to the zealous wackos at the Department of Homeland Security, back in 2007 during the latter part of the Bush administration an order went out that all workers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena–an organization that is run under contract to NASA by the California Institute of Technology, had to be vetted for high security clearance in order to continue doing their jobs. Never mind that not one of them was or is engaged in secret activities (NASA is a rigorously non-military, scientific agency which not only publishes all its findings, but which invites the active participation of scientists from around the world). In order to continue working at JPL, even scientists who had been with NASA for decades were told they would need a high-level security badge just to enter the premises. To be issued that badge, they were told they would need to agree undergo an intensive FBI check that would look into their prior life history, right back to college.

Not surprisingly, many scientists and engineers at JPL took umbrage at this extreme invasion of their private lives. Neighbors and old colleagues and acquaintances, ex-spouses, etc. were going to be interrogated about their drug-use history, their drinking habits, their juvenile arrest records, their sexual orientation-all those things that prying agents like to get into when doing a security clearance background check–as if they were applying for positions in the CIA or the Secret Service.

Robert Nelson, an astronomer who spearheaded an effort to prevent this pointless security effort, together with 27 other angry JPL scientists, sued JPL and the federal government in federal court. They lost initially in federal court but won a permanent injunction at the Ninth Circuit Appellate Court level. Unfortunately, the Obama administration appealed, and in 2011 when their case got to the Roberts Supreme Court, which rarely meets an invasive government security demand it doesn’t like, they lost.

Everyone who wanted to continue doing space science at JPL was told they had to submit to a security investigation.

The cost of this idiocy, which was aggressively pursued to a final Pyrrhic victory in the High Court by the Obama Department of Justice, has been grievous, as some 100 veteran scientists at JPL have quit or taken early retirement, rather than open their lives to the FBI.

Take Amanda Hendrix. She tells ThisCantBeHappening!, “I left JPL after 12 years (and with a good position and lots of opportunities) because I was very unhappy about the new badging requirements, particularly since they didn’t make sense to me for scientists like myself who require no access to top-secret-type materials. It was extremely disappointing to me that an institution like JPL would subject their long-time employees to such measures in order to keep their jobs.”

Hendrix is now working at the Planetary Science Institute.

Dennis Byrnes, who began working at JPL in early 1977, and who beginning in 2005 was chief engineer for flight dynamics, making him the “lead technical person at JPL for all things related to the flight dynamics of all JPL missions both in operations and planned,” also quit his job this year rather than submit to the security investigation. He says, “My job included all aspects of mission design, navigation and some aspects of guidance and control.” Prior to 2005 he says he was deputy manager and briefly the manager of JPL’s navigation and mission design section, and was awarded the NASA Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal (NASA’s highest technical engineering award) for his work on the Galileo Project to Jupiter.

Byrnes notes that when the Supreme Court issued its ruling, it didn’t mean the security checks had to go forward. “It merely meant that NASA could proceed, but did not require it,”  Byrnes says. “We urged NASA to consider other avenues similar to the Dept. of Energy, National Science Foundation and others who decided on a less restrictive implementation, but to no avail.”

In late 2011, when the details of the full implementation of the security checks at JPL were announced , the 68-year-old Byrnes says, “I decided to retire rather than submit to the investigations. This in no way reflected fear of discovery of anything personal (I had security clearances in the late ’60’s through mid-70’s and have nothing to hide). Rather, it was a decision on principle.  I believe the whole process to be unconstitutional and a completely unnecessary abuse of government power.” He says had this new badge requirement not come along, he would have stayed on for several years longer at JPL, “since I am a recognized world expert in my field and thoroughly enjoy what I do.”

Not everyone who quit over this issue was a scientist. Susan Foster, a senior science writer at JPL, began her career there working as a secretary in 1968, even before the first Apollo moon landing. She says she quit solely because of the NASA requirement that she submit to a “waiving of my Fourth Amendment rights or be denied access to the facility” where she had worked for 44 years. She is currently unemployed and looking for work.

What upset her most, she says, was NASA’s plan to use the information it obtained on its scientists’ and employees’ lives to create a “suitability matrix,” which would be used to see if they merited continued employment. In questioning JPL management, Foster says people learned that this “suitability matrix” would be considering things like “whether JPL scientists had participated in political demonstrations that could qualify in NASA’s scheme of things as disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, unlawful assembly” — all activities that she says many of JPL’s scientists had engaged in over the years.  Says Foster,  “Criteria such as ‘attitude’ are pretty frightening in their subjectivity, and ‘striking against the government’ is chilling to anyone who has supported, say, a legitimate teachers’ action.”

Remember, this is all in order to be allowed to work at a very open science agency that by law publishes all its findings.

Nelson, who was the point man for the JPL employee challenge to the new security requirement, also quit on principle rather than submit to the security investigation. An over 30-year veteran of JPL, and former head of the American Astronomical Association, Nelson says he decided he would not put up with that kind of intrusive invasion of his private life even in order to keep working at a job he loved, so he filed for retirement.  After retiring earlier than he had planned from his position at JPL, Nelson is now also at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, AZ, where his title is senior scientist.

One of the big concerns expressed by the JPL scientists was that NASA would not adequately protect the incredibly personal information it was going to be gathering on its employees at JPL. NASA after all, they noted, is not the CIA or the Secret Service. It operates in the open, and doesn’t have a culture of secrecy, and as a bureaucracy, is ill-equipped to manage such information securely.

Sure enough, last week NASA was forced to admit that an employee at the agency’s offices in Washington DC had left a laptop computer containing all that newly acquired personal information on its employees in his car on Halloween night, and it had been stolen. Worse yet, further validating the concerns of JPL scientists, the data on the computer had not even been encrypted!

Now NASA has had to hire a contractor specializing in protecting potential victims of identity theft to help all the JPL scientists at risk to avoid having their savings pilfered, their credit cards stolen, and perhaps to protect them from being subjected to harassment or extortion because of information gleaned from their security files.

This disaster at JPL is an case of the US security state run amok, and provides yet another example of how the Obama administration, which came into office in 2009 promising to return the country to some kind of sanity and respect for the Constitution, has instead driven 100 invaluable scientists out of JPL, weakening the nation’s already struggling space program, and has put hundreds of scientists’ lives, and the lives of their families, at risk.

And all for nothing.

There are no secrets at JPL, except perhaps for the temporary one about what it was that the Curiosity rover discovered in its early soil sampling on Mars.

Dave Lindorff is a  founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He lives in Philadelphia.

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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