JPL employees sue NASA, Caltech

By Phil Plait | August 31, 2007 3:56 pm

This doesn’t surprise me a bit: JPL scientists are suing NASA and Caltech (who jointly run JPL) for intrusive security checks.

This doesn’t surprise me because our government is going security crazy, with incredibly intrusive things being done for no reason whatsoever, or, if there is a reason, it’s not being disclosed. The scientists instigating the lawsuit say they do not fall under the category of needing this extra security check, and that they are having their Constitutional right violated. They may have some problems with that, as the 4th Amendment doesn’t really say you have a right to privacy. But still, the security checks are way over the top, and another sign of a government gone mad.

Of course, quotes like this don’t help:

“I can fly a spacecraft to any planet in the galaxy, and I’m being judged by people who don’t have a clue as to my technical qualifications whether I’m suitable for government service,” said [NASA engineer Dennis] Byrnes.

Dude. You’ve done amazing work in the past (Apollo 7, Galileo), but um, no, you can’t fly a spacecraft to any planet in the Galaxy. Sigh.

Still and all, it will be interesting to see where this lawsuit goes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics
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Comments (64)

  1. JackC

    Can we at least presume that he PROBABLY meant “Solar System”?

    JC

  2. Roy Batty

    This is really another pile of cr*p that scientific institutions don’t need.
    Btw I don’t blame Byrne for saying what he did, seems like he was just blowing his top, so to speak

  3. Bob H

    I agree that he just meant solar system and just mispoke. Happens to the best of us sometimes.

  4. Dan

    None of this will help me get my flying car now, will it?

    We’re all supposed to be spacecars and living on the moon by now, but Mr. Byrnes is dorking around with all this lawsuit nonsense.

  5. I knew someone who worked at JPL for a while on the Mars Science Laboratory. He got fired a while back… not sure exactly why. Kinda sucks though because I was gona try to pay him for sending something to mars for me. Like, some kind of little thing in the traces on a board… but like I said… he got fired before he got very far.

    Wonder if he’ll sue now. Eh… never really liked him anyway…

  6. I suppose it depends partly on what you mean by “can”. Given a workable vehicle — a mere implementation detail :-) — I suppose he may have the skills to program a computer to direct it to some arbitrarily designated planet (the nth, perhaps, or the most nearly Earth-like) of some arbitrarily chosen star in the galaxy.

    Of course, we do not, and can not know all the stars in the galaxy (the farthest side of Sagittarius will surely be unknown to us for a long time), but can we not make /some/ allowance for rhetoric?

    At any rate, I /hope/ this explanation is more probable than mistaking “galaxy” for “solar system”, a mistake that I, a non-scientist, would have been incapable of at age 10.

  7. Randall

    I have a friend who worked at JPL recently, and he came across the following document from a coworker. The story was that JPL employees must now pass this “Suitability Matrix,” though the details are unclear. I’m not sure if this is actually what’s currently in effect, or if this is a remnant of some older document, but I thought you guys would find it interesting:

    http://editthis.info/images/jpl_rebadging/a/ab/Suitability_Matrix_mods.pdf

  8. KaiYeves

    If you join the Planetary Society, I understand you can get your name put on a CD that will go with a probe, drbuzz0. However, my superiors have forbidden me from joining any organizations, however admirable, while studying you guys here on Earth, so I’ll have to be content with visiting their website.

  9. Caesar

    Just a small note: The 4th Amendment doesn’t use the word “privacy”, because in the day it wasn’t commonly used like it is today.

    In spite of lacking the word “privacy”, being secure in person, papers, houses and effects sure sounds like it, especially if you don’t have a word like “privacy” which you could use.

    Another issue which is often brought up about the Constitution is that it limits the government, not the people (or corporations), but it’s interesting to note that it doesn’t say that the government can’t do something, but that people are secure in something–not secure from the government, but simply secure, except after certain processes.

    Not that the Constitution is all that well defended and adhered to (which is an entirely separate issue).

  10. Chris

    I don’t know… maybe he CAN fly a spacecraft to any planet in the galaxy, it just won’t get there any time soon. Orbital mechanics is orbital mechanics and all that.

  11. Privacy is protected in the California State Constitution. http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/.const/.article_1

  12. mommyrex

    Couldn’t it be a misquote? Without a source showing that he wrote or spoke it, I’d sooner believe that the journalist inserted the error than that the engineer misspoke. I admit to a strong bias from prior experience with journalists.

    I first heard of this Homeland Security requirement some months ago, and I wonder how many more out there were coerced into (silent) compliance out of fear for their careers:
    DHS requires government contractors’ health, credit and travel records

  13. Wil

    Regardless of what the 4th Amendment says, the 9th Amendment says “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

    As I understand it (and it’s been a long time since I was in school) this means that rights do not have to specifically outlined in the Constitution for Americans to have them. In other words, it says that unless something is explicitly denied to our fellow US Americans, we already have it, like an inherent right to privacy and such as like.

  14. Jon H

    Yet another effort by the Bush administration to quietly kill NASA. Staff it with political hacks, redirect spending to long-term snipe hunts of questionable utility (and high profit for defense contractors), now institute ridiculous ‘security’ checks that will drive out the staff.

    NASA is too popular for the Bushies to get away with zeroing out the budget, but they have plenty of other ways to make it a hollow shell.

  15. Olive

    I don’t think it was a misquote or a mental glitch or anything, I think the guy was just being a wee bit hyperbolic.

    We could debate whether that was the time or place for hyperbole. I think modesty and a reference to the various glories NASA engineers have brought to the country would have been ideal, but maybe he was put on the spot.

  16. Troy

    The wizards at JPL could indeed fly a spacecraft to any planet in the galaxy. If you know where the planet is, you know its orbit and you know where you’re at it can be done. Since we have the capacity to leave the solar system it isn’t too much more of a stretch to control it and send it somewhere. Of course even at light speed we’d all be dead before any information came back but hey technically he is correct.

    On the privacy issue, it is unfortunate the Sept. 11 attacks led to this oppressive police state mentality. The cause of the attacks was from government non communication and government incompetence. Katrina 4 years later proved those issues haven’t been fixed.

  17. KC

    “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”

    Whether you call that privacy or not, JPLers are still being told that must give permission for the government to violate it, else they “will have decided to voluntarily resign.” In other words, this is not a layoff with the accompanying benefits. It is a forced termination without the financial and medical benefits that JPLers have been assured if they were terminated unwillingly without cause.

    And the forms don’t just demand access to a lot of information. They demand permission to access to ALL information: telephone records, personal e-mail, GPS data, or anything else the government can call “information”. (See the end of form SF85.)

    JPL is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC). It is managed and operated by Caltech. The vast majority of JPLers are not civil servants or federal contractors. They are private citizens are employees of Caltech. JPL management has said themselves that 98% of people working on lab are in “non-sensitive positions”. I am not a lawyer, but it seems like the legal equivalent of threating to “voluntarily resign” a forestry professor doing federally funded research in a national park.

    Caltech/JPL’s claim is that they are just following orders. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin’s has claimed that he is just following the law as it applies to all agencies. Yet, from what we’ve heard, the Department of Energy’s FFRDCs are NOT planning on undergoing the same procedure. That includes Los Alamos, Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, FermiLab, etc. Does it still sound like this is about security to you?

    And there’s more! Lots more! The Suitability Matrix (mentioned by Randall earlier) is another example of the complete absurdity involved. It and a lot of other research and documentation is available at hspd12jpl.org

  18. Eric

    I agree with Olive. Hyperbole.

  19. Larry

    Can we so a little regress here?? Who
    gathers the “goods” on the ones doing the
    spying on the scientists?? And who then does it on them?? Just wondering !!

  20. You work for the government, you require a security clearance. That’s surprisingly normal enough. Just because you have a security clearance doesn’t mean you’re necessarily having to work on classified information all the time.

    At a very basic level, I don’t have a problem with people who do rocketry and space flight research for the government being required to have security clearances… and that means getting background checks done.

    What surprises me is that it hasn’t been required until now.

  21. Wildride

    That quote reminds me of those phone ads where they’d claim you could call anywhere for a set price and when the other person in the ad would ask, “Anywhere?” The first person would respond, “Yep, anywhere in the US.”

    So, perhaps if the reporter followed up with, “Anywhere in the galaxy?” He might have responded, “Yep, anywhere in the galaxy that is within this solar system.”

    Wildride

  22. Quiet_Desperation

    This is weird. I work on black budget stuff, and they actually got rid of “polygraph everyone” policy as far as I can tell. My recent security update went real smooth.

    *shrug*

    I actually like having spooks show up to question my neighbors. :) They are clear about why they are there, and it lends an air of mystery to me. I like to think they assume I work at CTU with jack Bauer or something. 😀

    >>> Just because you have a security clearance doesn’t
    >>> mean you’re necessarily having to work on classified
    >>> information all the time.

    Exactly. The classified stuff I know would fit on a Post-It.

  23. Oh god… It’s just a hyperbole out of frustration. Everyone does that. Although I imagine the man could actually fly a spaceship anywhere in the galaxy given enough fuel and coordinates and lot’s of as of yet unknown information about positions of stars 😉

  24. Sue Mitchell

    Well, I’m thinking E.S.A., C.E.R.N. and any number of British scientific institutions would welcome an extra 28 J.P.L. scientists if they are finally considered to have voluntarily* resigned. 😀

    *redefined term.
    …………………………………………………..

    Randall:

    Has Bush been subjected to this “Suitability Matrix?” I suspect not as I’m pretty sure he’d fail on the ‘Honesty’ section…

  25. idlemind

    You work for the government, you require a security clearance.

    Poppycock; the “security clearance” they’re talking about is as extensive as someone had to go through to get access to information classified Top Secret. This sort of thing has never been required of government employees who don’t handle classified information — until now.

  26. JackC

    mommyrex – and others – Engineers “misspeak” all the time. My favourite came from a friend of mine upset that in Florida (where he lives) you needed a “larger Satellite dish” for Sat TV (circa 1990 here – where they weren’t yet little dishes) than I did in NY – “because all the satellites orbit above major city centers like LA and NY”

    This guy was an RF Engineer – and a GOOD one.

    He just didn’t necessarily follow orbital mechanics.

    JC

  27. Poppycock; the “security clearance” they’re talking about is as extensive as someone had to go through to get access to information classified Top Secret. This sort of thing has never been required of government employees who don’t handle classified information — until now.

    Yes, I agree, it does sound like they’re being screened for TS clearance. But I reiterate my previous statement that people who do rocketry and space flight research for the government should probably be so cleared even if their specific jobs do not access TS material on a day-to-day basis. I am amazed this hasn’t been the case since the first day NASA was created.

    How embarrassing would it be for the United States if it was revealed that a top NASA researcher was an Al Qaeda member, or was on the payroll of the Chinese government, for example? Security clearances are not just about access to information, they are part “corruptibility / loyalty test” as well that allow the government to verify if you are a safe employee to have around.

  28. Jesper

    I don’t think you have to take everything that someone says *literally*.

    Don’t you think Byrnes meant this figuratively, just to make his point stronger?

    Ofcourse Byrnes is smart enough to know that he can’t *really* fly to any planet in the galaxy…

  29. JackC

    This entire thing seems to be about some guy (OK – a number of people) upset about some huge “background check” – the Wired article itself notes that the issue in question is an ID badge. It even has links to all the supporting documents. I suggest you all go read some.

    I personally have been through these. They are pretty standard. I agree completely with PZ – I am surprised that it hasn’t been done as yet – and I bet it probably HAS been done – they may not even know it. I went through a minimised version of the same before my employ at Verizon, for goodness sake.

    The requirement here is that these workers be issued a badge that says they are who they say they are. The process for achieving that (you don’t just walk in front of a camera, slap a photo on a piece of plastic and say” This is Me!”) is detailed in quite a number of documents – which have graduations. The more clearance you want, the more detailed your checks are.

    If you require a high clearance, the “detailed” background checks are – and must be – done to assure much more than just your ID. These are not only reasonable, they are required. They are not, however, required for those not seeking high clearances. They are, however, part of the process – in the event that a high clearance is sought.

    This is a storm in a teacup. Go read the documents. All I can see in all the references I read is “there is a possibility that some of the information might be misused”. I think that is the case if you give out your phone number.

    When I received my very first “ID badge” some years ago at ATTWS, I made a point of NEVER showing it to the “guards” – whom I knew personally. I threatened to put photos of other people on it should they ever even check it. My ready demand, should they ever force to see my card – was “Now – PROVE that this is me.” – because all they had was a plastic card with a photo on it.

    Terribly, terribly stupid.

    JC

  30. MO Man

    Off the topic for a minute to ask for a little help. I am not a scientist (retired teacher) but I live with the values of science, and try not to let passion surpass knowledge. Now, along comes one of my friends who is not interested in much more than making money, and he sends me the link below to some “research” that supposedly shows that most scientists don’t really back Global Warming conclusions that seem to be prevalent, at least in the press. I suspect what he has written is bogus but I don’t have the skills to debunk it. And I don’t know how to make contact with any of you who do have this type of knowledge, so all I can do is write this note and see if any following comments can point me in the right direction. Thanks!

    http://www.dailytech.com/Survey+Less+Than+Half+of+all+Published+Scientists+Endorse+Global+Warming+Theory/article8641.htm

  31. Brown

    One has to be careful when proffering remarks like “the 4th Amendment doesn’t really say you have a right to privacy,” as if this were a reasoned argument.

    It’s really amazing how many people you can enrage with such an argument.

    After all, the Second Amendment doesn’t really say that there is a right of private citizens to own handguns.

    The First Amendment doesn’t really guarantee tax exemptions for churches.

    This sort of “argument” is not limited to opposing conventionally defined “conservative” positions. It also can be (and IS) used to oppose conventionally defined “liberal” positions as well. For example, the First Amendment guarantee any freedom of expression by way of, say, television or an Internet blog.

    And there’s always the old stale refrain urged by those who say that government ought to compel citizens to observe particular religious rules, whether the citizens accept that religion or not: the First Amendment doesn’t codify a “separation of church and state.”

    The moral is that saying such-and-such is or is not constitutional, based merely upon whether a particular word or phrase is used in the Constitution, is a simplistic, unhelpful and misleading way of making a point.

  32. JackC

    Mo Man – go here and feast: http://realclimate.org/

    JC

  33. Apparently they check up on a person’s sexual orientation.

    What the hell does gender preference have to do with security? I guess gay people are more likely to be terrorists, huh?

  34. Gary Ansorge

    I have no idea where they got their figures. No references are given. Sounds like some bad reporting to me.I’d reference the U.N. commission on global warming. I expect they have more reliable data on human interaction with the environment than does any science blog(except for Phils, of course).

    If anyone asks you how a little CO2 can have such effects, refer them to the practice of covering your cooking pot with a lid in order to get it to the boiling point faster. CO2 is the lid,,,

    GAry 7

  35. Gary Ansorge

    I expect when it comes to climate change, that when the ocean is lapping at the door to the White house, the climate change nay-sayers will be either hiding out or complaining “Why didn’t you TELL US(in more certain terms, such as a brick alongside the head),,,”

    No matter whaT WE DO, THERE WILL LIKELY ALWAYS BE SOME SLIPPERY WEASEL escaping responsibility.

    I’m talking at you, George Bush,,,

    Gary 7

  36. We at Goddard are having to do the same thing. I know of people who are saying they’ll find jobs elsewhere rather than going through this. I was caught at a bad time – my badge expired at the end of April, and I was told I needed to fill out the paperwork pronto in order to get it renewed. But I wasn’t happy about it.

  37. KaiYeves

    Uh, Troy, Katrina was TWO years ago, not four. And while I understand Evolving Squid’s logic about background checks, I don’t think any top NASA researchers are likely to be terrorists.

  38. Robert Carnegie

    Despite the name, I thought JPL drive the things but they don’t build ’em. So he could pilot a robot ship to anywhere in the galaxy – if someone else delivers adequate hardware. As it is, I bet they have flight simulators and plans for extra-solar planets nearby.

    As for security, a few science fiction stories imply that maybe you do want your space pilots checked out, particularly when they’re not on board the thing themselves, if there’s any risk at all that the James Webb telescope’s flight path could be redirected onto someone’s mother-in-law’s home. Not that that really would make the pilot’s life any better, but there are reports that a few people at NASA don’t always think straight. In fact, any administration should handle NASA very carefully. They have the orbital high ground. I hear – you know where – that Dick Cheney’s residence got taken off Google Earth. (Not in real life, only the computer record.)

  39. Phil,

    It doesn’t matter that the 4th Amendment doesn’t explicitly state a right to privacy, because the 9th Amendment says that rights not enumerated by the Constitution may still be found to belong to the people.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution

    The right to privacy is not called out in an Amendment, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

  40. Dale

    Maybe he’s working on a secret hyper-space drive system and he literally CAN fly a spacecraft to any planet in the galaxy. If that’s the case, the government probably would want him to have a clearance.

    As for why they are asking about sexual preference, the whole idea is to know everything about you that you might want to keep secret from the rest of the world. For some people, as the recent news out of Idaho/Minnesota shows, being homosexual (or committing homosexual acts) is something they might want to hide and be willing to go to some lengths to hide it. The idea is “we” know about it so you don’t have to worry if “they” find out and try to use it against you. Of course, for rational people, sexual preference is far from something to be ashamed of.

    The farce of it all, of course, is that the most damaging spies and traitors spent their entire careers making it through these background checks.

  41. alfan

    Does anyone really think that Bush would know the difference between a galaxy and a solar system anyway?

  42. Hossienda

    Nah, Bush would say intergalactic travel was possible via “nucular” propulsion. I’d like to smack that goddam idiot in the head with his My Pet Goat book every time his uneducated hillbilly ass says that.

  43. Republitard McDumbass

    If you all studied the theory of intelligent design before posting, you’d realize that anything is possible when you put your faith where your mouth is.

  44. Reginald VanPebblestone VIII

    Maybe he was drunk?? That’s been in the news lately as well…

  45. Biff

    You better hope Jesus doesn’t stumble across this site upon his return. REPENT NOW!!

  46. Gary Ansorge

    Hi, I’m Jesus and I really like this site,,,

    A pagan friend and I were trying to come up with a novel bumper sticker for his picnic fund raising. How’s this sound?

    “With enough faith,
    you don’t need truth,,,”

    (sarcasm intentional)

    or,,,

    “Faith won’t move a mountain,
    but a mustard seed can,
    if you wait long enough.”

  47. Jesus

    No, I’m Jesus! And so is my wife!

  48. Jon H

    Dale wrote: “The idea is “we” know about it so you don’t have to worry if “they” find out and try to use it against you”

    That was the theory but it doesn’t work anymore.

    Someone like Senator Craig insists he’s straight, and would answer that way on the form. But he’d be a prime blackmail target.

    Anyone who is out would answer truthfully, but because he or she is out, they would not have been a security risk in the first place.

    So what’s the point? The only people who are risks are the one who lie when they answer that question.

  49. Rob

    : [i]Poppycock; the “security clearance” they’re talking about is as
    : extensive as someone had to go through to get access to information
    : classified Top Secret. This sort of thing has never been required of
    : government employees who don’t handle classified information — until
    : now.[/i]

    : Yes, I agree, it does sound like they’re being screened for TS
    : clearance. But I reiterate my previous statement that people who do
    : rocketry and space flight research for the government should
    : probably be so cleared even if their specific jobs do not access TS
    : material on a day-to-day basis. I am amazed this hasn’t been the
    : case since the first day NASA was created.

    Two points:

    1) These people are not government employees, they’re Caltech employees. That’s the way these things work. This isn’t NRL they’re at, it’s a federally-funded center run under contract by a private institution. That’s the same as NOAO (run by Aura), NRAO (run by AUI), NAIC (run by Cornell), NSO (Aura), STScI (Aura yet again), etc.

    2) What’s so secret about rocketry and space flight? There are private firms working on this kind of thing (and even launching rockets). NASA don’t build ICBMs or anything like that (and the secret part there would be the guidance anyway, not the rocketry).

    Special bonus point:

    3) Do you really think Werner von Braun would have survived an intensive background investigation (or even a not particularly intensive one)?

  50. federally-funded center run under contract by a private institution.

    That means they’re doing government work.

    What’s so secret about rocketry and space flight?

    Probably not lots, but it’s high-value work. Governments almost always require security clearances of people who work with government-funded high value assets, not just people who work with super-secret-spy-stuff.

    Do you really think Werner von Braun would have survived an intensive background investigation (or even a not particularly intensive one)?

    Yes. The background check that turns up whether or not you were a Nazi isn’t relevant unless you’ve tried to conceal that fact. If you’ve tried to conceal it, then other people who find out could use it to blackmail you, thereby making you a security risk. But having some negative, yet publicly known, blot in your background typically doesn’t affect your clearance much, if at all.

    The relevant question they would be looking at would be “Is Werner von Braun a loyal American.”

  51. Stark

    Jon H –

    You are missing the point of a security check. They don’t just take what you put on the form and say “OK!”. They take what you put on the form and verify it against what they can find out. They look for lies – and they usually find some. Most folks will lie about certain things without even realizing they have done so… those aren’t too big a deal. However, lying about your sexual orientation is a big thing. It means you have some serious fear or shame about an integral part of your makeup and that is a huge weakness that can be exploited by an outside party – making you a potential security risk. They investigate you vigorously hoping to find that your story on paper matches the real world – if it does, then all is good and well, if it doesn’t then you probably won’t get cleared.

    The funny thing about this is that if you are working for the Feds and getting paid out of Fed money (even if it is through an intemdiary like CalTech) they don’t actually have to ask before they conduct a background investigation. It’s nice if they have the questionnaire and all but not really neccesary to make a security determination. For example, if they find you have a gambling problem and a huge debt and you happen to work on high value projects of potential interest to outside parties (both foreign governments and corporations in generel – espionage is not limited to govts folks!) then you are a potential security risk and would probably be, at the least, watched a bit more closely.

    If you work at JPL you know full well that your paycheque comes from the Fed. If you have a modicum of common sense you know that the Fed is paranoid about security. Put those 2 together and I’m with PZ – suprised it hasn’t come up before. I’d be willing to bet that backgrounds have already been done on most of these folks but this is the first time their employer has bothered to tell them and ask them to complete the paperwork.

  52. Allyson

    You’d lose that bet.

  53. Lurchgs

    Allyson – I rather doubt it. Background checks aren’t always intrusive. They could simply to a quick look at your bank records without you knowing about it.

    As for the rest of Stark’s comments – he’s dead on about that, too. What information JPL works with that could be ‘sensitive’ I haven’t a clue, but obviously somebody thinks there’s something there that’s worth keeping to ourselves. Just because Mr Byrnes may not work with classified information doesn’t mean nobody in the complex does. A security clearance would indicate that he could be trusted to handle said information correctly in the event that he stumbles on it in the break room.

    I rather doubt, also, that this is spurred on by worries about terrorists. I’m guessing it’s more in line with how much of our space program has leaked to places such as China.

    (I also have to admit, it’s nice hearing others starting to say what I’ve been saying for years – The Department of Homeland Security is – and was – a mistake.)

    As fas whether or not GW could pass a BI, why stop there? how about anybody in congress?

    Lessee – oh, the “I work for CALTEC, not the government” is a bogus argument. No significant difference from “I work for Lockheed Martin” or any other defense contractor. If the government pays your bills, you work for them, and they can demand a background check. Sure, JPL isn’t a defense contractor that we know of, but it would not surprise me in the least to find sensitive information there.

    What’s missing from Mr Byrnes quoted comment is the realization that his *abilities* have absolutely nothing to do with his suitability for employment – under these criteria. And these criteria are paramount to his ability to fly spacecraft. IN other words, they are separate issues, and it doesn’t matter how well he flies if he’s deemed a security risk.

    Finally, as an individual who has been subject to a full BI, and at least one PR (Periodic Review), I find it helped me in the long run. After I left the military, the combination of military experience AND the clearance helped me get a job I would otherwise have missed.

    As is often the case, Shakespear was right. “Methinks he doth protest too much.”

  54. Irishman

    Some comments.

    This isn’t limited to JPL – it is NASA wide. NASA is implementing the Homeland Security directive to verify identities of federal employees, including contract employees. JSC is rolling this out currently as well.

    I am currently undergoing the 85P process (the more intensive one). This has been deemed standard for all JSC civil servants and contractors. Yes, the form does feel intrusive, and yes, there is a certain feeling of “great, I have to sign this or lose my job”. There certainly was a bit of soul-searching on my part of whether I wanted to do something else. Not because I feel I have anything to hide, but because it doesn’t seem like it should be any of their business.

    Security clearances per se used to be required only for people working on the DoD missions. Those not working on DoD did not require security clearance. When DoD stopped using Shuttle, the security clearances went away (well, were no longer relevant, though I suppose technically were still on file, they just weren’t identified on badges any more).

    Jon H said:
    > Yet another effort by the Bush administration to quietly kill NASA.

    I don’t think one should chalk this up to any Bush or administration anti-NASA sentiment. This is just the bureaucratic implementation of an overly-security cautious process. JPL is a NASA facility, and NASA is rolling out the background checks it has been required to implement by law. Whether the process as being implemented is required to be so strict to meet the legal requirments imposed, or if there are legal grounds for resisting, are the issues under debate.

    Troy said:
    > On the privacy issue, it is unfortunate the Sept. 11 attacks led to this oppressive police state mentality. The cause of the attacks was from government non communication and government incompetence.

    Um, not exactly. The cause of the attacks was the terrorists trying to create large scale mayhem and attract attention. The attacks succeeded in part due to a lack of communication, obstruction, and incompetance that prevented discovery of the plot.

    KC said:
    > Whether you call that privacy or not, JPLers are still being told that must give permission for the government to violate it, else they “will have decided to voluntarily resign.” In other words, this is not a layoff with the accompanying benefits. It is a forced termination without the financial and medical benefits that JPLers have been assured if they were terminated unwillingly without cause.

    I’m not sure if that is true. What are the differences in benefits between being layed off and resigning?

    > And the forms don’t just demand access to a lot of information. They demand permission to access to ALL information: telephone records, personal e-mail, GPS data, or anything else the government can call “information”. (See the end of form SF85.)

    I’m looking at my copy and don’t see that. Do you have a link?

    What I know is that NASA institutional email systems and computers are regarded as federal property and you sign a statement that you have no right to privacy on any government email account system. Same applies to my company email.

    > JPL is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC). It is managed and operated by Caltech. The vast majority of JPLers are not civil servants or federal contractors. They are private citizens are employees of Caltech. JPL management has said themselves that 98% of people working on lab are in “non-sensitive positions”.

    This may be one issue of legal grounds. However, CalTech employees working at JPL are considered government contractors, because CalTech is the contract agency supporting NASA/JPL. Typically we “contractors” have to fill out a timesheet to accurately charge our work so the company can bill NASA (and track contract performance). If the CalTech employees charge to a NASA contract number, they are contractors. If they charge a CalTech number, or their time is not tracked because it is not billed against the government, then they may be exempt from the process.

  55. Irishman

    crappy code bungle. “Cause” was bolded, not the rest.

    Evolving Squid said:

    > You work for the government, you require a security clearance. That’s surprisingly normal enough. Just because you have a security clearance doesn’t mean you’re necessarily having to work on classified information all the time.

    This is a terminology issue that needs to be clarified. The Form 85 and 85P is not called a “security clearance”, but a “background check”. What is the difference? A “security clearance” is something that at the end you get a security clearance designation (sensitive, secret, top secret, etc). A “background check” is an investigation to confirm your identity and to determine if there are any major areas of concern for your reliability.

    The degree of scrutiny being applied is more than has been required of non-security clearance NASA personnel in the past, but less than a full DoD background check (FBI talking to friends and family, etc). I have been told the process is that they mail a questionaire to the people who you list on your form, for them to fill out and return. There might be followup interviews for clarification.

    idlemind said:
    > Poppycock; the “security clearance” they’re talking about is as extensive as someone had to go through to get access to information classified Top Secret. This sort of thing has never been required of government employees who don’t handle classified information — until now.

    While it is true this is a new level of screening for non-classified employees, the level of screening is not as intensive as for Top Secret clearance (where they actively interview your background references). It is a questionaire that is mailed to the people you identify.

    JackC said:
    > If you require a high clearance, the “detailed” background checks are – and must be – done to assure much more than just your ID. These are not only reasonable, they are required. They are not, however, required for those not seeking high clearances. They are, however, part of the process – in the event that a high clearance is sought.

    This is a mischaracterization. The background check in question has nothing to do with seeking a high security clearance now or in the future. Administrative assistants are subject to the same scrutiny as engineers and technicians. This applies to all employees. The intent is to determine you are who you say you are [citizenship, education, living as that identity, all aliases, work history, military history (dishonorably discharged?), police record (pattern of criminal behavior), and financial record (been subject to bankruptcy personally or professionally)]. They are looking to see that you don’t lie, because lies mark someone untrustworthy. They are looking for areas where you are subject to blackmail or other coercion to leak information or commit sabotage.

    > My ready demand, should they ever force to see my card – was “Now – PROVE that this is me.” – because all they had was a plastic card with a photo on it.

    This has been pointed out with regards to airport security screening, where previously “photo ID” allowed any type of photo ID, including company badges, etc. All you need is a laser printer and a lamination machine and you can be anyone you want. So airline security already had to tighten their policies. The intent with badging is to provide a badge to people you’ve screened and identified, and use badges that are difficult to convincingly fake. Then badges can be a shorthand for proving identity.

    supercheetah said:

    >Apparently they check up on a person’s sexual orientation.

    > What the hell does gender preference have to do with security? I guess gay people are more likely to be terrorists, huh?

    They are screening for your succeptibility to being blackmailed. If you are gay and out, then you won’t care if someone threatens to out you as being gay, so they can’t force you to give them secret/classified/sensitive data or access. Someone like Senator Craig could be succeptible to that type of pressure, because he’s living a lie.

    KaiYeves said:
    > Uh, Troy, Katrina was TWO years ago, not four.

    Read it again:
    Troy said:
    >Katrina 4 years later proved those issues haven’t been fixed.

    4 years later, not 4 years ago. He meant 4 years between 9/11 and Katrina.

    KaiYeves said:
    >And while I understand Evolving Squid’s logic about background checks, I don’t think any top NASA researchers are likely to be terrorists.

    And yet just this summer there was an incident of sabotage on ISS hardware delivered from a NASA contractor.

    Dale said:
    > The idea is “we” know about it so you don’t have to worry if “they” find out and try to use it against you.

    Um, no, the idea is you lie about it and we find out you lied, you don’t get a job. If you’re open about it, then you aren’t succeptible to blackmail, so you aren’t a risk for that issue. It’s not just that the agency knows, but that everyone knows, or at least there’s no one you explicitly don’t want to know. If you’re trying to keep it secret from someone, then you could be blackmailed by threats to reveal it to that person. Of course, the more people who know, the less likely you can be blackmailed because the more people could inadvertently reveal that detail anyway.

    Rob said:
    > 1) These people are not government employees, they’re Caltech employees. That’s the way these things work. This isn’t NRL they’re at, it’s a federally-funded center run under contract by a private institution. That’s the same as NOAO (run by Aura), NRAO (run by AUI), NAIC (run by Cornell), NSO (Aura), STScI (Aura yet again), etc.

    They are a federally-funded center under contract – that makes them federal contractors, and subject to the Homeland Security regulation. I can’t speak for why NOAO, NRAO, NAIC, NSO, STScI, etc may or may not be undergoing similar processes of background checks.

    > 2) What’s so secret about rocketry and space flight? There are private firms working on this kind of thing (and even launching rockets). NASA don’t build ICBMs or anything like that (and the secret part there would be the guidance anyway, not the rocketry).

    Interesting question. Advertising at the office for several years has talked about the need for security and protecting our information, and using Aldrich Ames on posters to draw attention to the issue. I always found that amusing, likening our work on space flight hardware to information on the identities of spies and ongoing espionage activities in foreign countries. Still, there are currently export control laws in place to prevent the export of technology information to China. Everyone at NASA is subject to these laws. There are also concerns about foreign industrial spying, which is a concern for commercial economic impact.

    > 3) Do you really think Werner von Braun would have survived an intensive background investigation (or even a not particularly intensive one)?

    Why not? von Braun was a ringer. He had federal clearance to work for NASA anyway.

  56. Irishman

    Complaints from the article:

    The form indicates that the applicant should “try” not to list therse reference names in multiple places in the one (e.g., a generic reference should not also be used as someone who knew you at an address), but the implications of listing the same person multiple places are not defined. (What does it mean to “try?”)

    When I was entering my information into the database, I was explicitly informed which areas to use unique people that were not elsewhere identified. The intent is for you to have a diversity of people and not rely on one person to provide all your references. This is to help cross check your identity. Multiple people knowing you spanning multiple years at multiple locations all confirming you as the same person. The “penalty” for not complying is that they would have to come back to you and request more references. Failure to comply would likely be considered in the evaluation as grounds not to approve.

    > This means that applicants are required to submit the names of supervisors for whom they worked, even if they requested to be transferred from those organizations because of an unworkable relationship with that supervisor.

    Yes. They even explicitly ask if you have been terminated under a string of possible conditions that range from being fired to leaving a job for any reason under unfavorable circumstances. You are allowed to provide your own comments, and if there were questions there would probably be a followup interview with you. Again, the question is not just if you were negatively reviewed, but that you are honest about it, and there are explanations.

    What the Form 85 Instructions say
    1) The information you give us is for the purpose of determining your suitability for federal employment

    2) The form is to be used “only when a conditional offer of employment has been made”

    3) “[F]inal determination on your eligibility for a position will be made by the Office of Personnel Management or the federal agency that requested your investigation.”

    4) Giving us the information we ask for is voluntary

    What JPL management says
    1) Actually, we’re not going to use it for that at all. The information you give us is for the purpose of determining access to the laboratory.

    2) Employees and contractors already employed will use this form.

    3) Determination on job eligibility was made at the time of employment. For some employees, this decision was made years or decades ago.

    4) Your employment, regardless of its previous duration, will be terminated if you do not provide the information we ask.

    1) This is a mischaracterization. The requirements for acceptability for federal employment have been changed, and retroactively applied. Anyone wishing to remain employed for the federal government must meet the new standards of acceptability. Since current employees have not been previously screened, the screening process will commence now. It is evaluating the suitability for federal employement, it is just that the suitability requirements have changed. The JPL management (and NASA management) use complies with what the form says.

    2) Actual quote from my copy of the form:

    The United States Government conducts background investigations and reinvestigations to establish that applicants or incumbents either employed by the Government or working for the Government under contract, are suitable for the job and/or eligible for a public trust or sensitive position. Information from this form is used primarily as the basis for this investigation. Complete this form only after a conditional offer of employment has been made.

    Note the statement of “reinvestigations” and inclusion of “incumbents” in the applicability. I take the final sentence not as a declaration that the form will only be used for current applicants, but rather as a statement that the form will not be required until an offer has been tendered. YOu don’t have to fill out the form just to apply, only if they decide they want to hire you.

    3) Yes, determination of eligibility was previously made for these people years ago. Suitability requirements for eligibility have been changed and applied retroactively. Final determination of continued eligibility will be made by the stated parties.

    4) Giving the information is voluntary. You may voluntarily provide the information, or voluntarily seek other employement. While it may seem unfair to require something new from long-time employees, it is still voluntary to work for this agency and organization. You are not required to provide the information if you decide to resign instead.

    Page 8 of form 85P indicates that the employee is authorizing investigations “…for the purpose of making a determination of suitability or eligibility for a security clearance.” Note that applying for a security clearance differs from applying for a badge to verify personal identity.

    Not sure where that sentence is located. It is not in my copy. I checked the electroncic copy sent to me to fill out prior to entering the data in the database, there was no page 8. Be that as it may, yes, it is technically correct there is a difference between a screening for security clearance and for applying for a badge to determine identy. As I previously stated, this is not a formal DoD security clearance, this is a background check, not just an identity confirmation. An identity confirmation could be as unintrusive as asking for a Driver’s License and Birth Certificate. Or it can be as involved as personally interviewing your parents, teachers, employers, neighbors, and friends from throughout your live. This process is an intermediary form – a questionaire to numerous people that know you personally.

  57. Ian

    We he COULD, but it would just take a long time to get there. If he knew where “there” was.

  58. JackC

    Irishman

    You seem to have had a lot of time on your hands!

    I find it interesting that this has arroused so much interest and occasional angst for something that really is pretty basic – trying to develop a reasonable way to determine an individual is whom they say they are. I think of the scene in M.A.S.H once where a Korean is asked to identify himself – and he points to his face and says “This is me.”

    My father continuously complains about “security at airports and how silly it is. Though I essentially agree with him – it is for different reasons. His position is he “in no way” resembles any kind of “terrorist” and therefore, should not be subject to such intensive seraches. My position is – they can’t tell anyway and are playing a loose form of odds in hope of either discouraging – or maybe actually detecting – someone that is.

    And that is of course the concept of the Identification badge. Of course, even with the badge, without biometrics or some other linkage to the wearer, as well as an alert, effective and attentive guard force, it really is nothing but another process to go through to give an illusion of security.

    JC

  59. MichaelS

    KaiYeves: Troy said “4 years later“. The 9/11 attacks took place in 2001, +4 years is 2005 which is 2 years ago. :)

    To everybody: “security” doesn’t mean “we have classified information”. It means “we want to be safe”. Maybe I’m signing off critical systems on the shuttle as safe even though I didn’t even look at them (I’m lazy, procrastinated, and now I don’t have time to meet the deadline and don’t want to get fired). You find out, but I know about your drug and gambling problems, so you keep your mouth shut.

    Classified information is, almost by definition, very sensitive and potentially hazardous to our nation’s well-being, so there tends to be a great emphasis put on the reliability of people working with it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put emphasis on anything else. And I think any type of institution that puts things into space is worthy of emphasis.

  60. Escuerd

    I’m a Caltech student who did a Summer Internship at JPL. The security procedures there are ridiculously cumbersome and still a joke. They constantly ID anyone going in and out through the gates, but somehow animals as large as deer and even occasionally mountain lions get onto the lab’s campus all the time (there are deer there every day, at least in Summer).

    They make getting an ID badge ridiculously hard, but then make mistakes like forgetting to label it with the date it’s supposed to expire.

    When I left at the end of the Summer I didn’t realize how many people had to sign a form required for me to turn my badge back in. I sent the form to the right people and left for a month. When I came back, and brought the list of signatures to the lady in the badge office, she looked over them, whited out one or two and signed over them. As Hermes Conrad said: “Ah, the cycle of bureaucracy.”

  61. anonymous_inEurope

    I was hoping to see outrage in more of the responses, instead of the general acceptance that I’m seeing here. As a person working in the same space business as the JPL plaintiffs, but in Europe, I can say that no such invasive background checks (or any) exist here to work in space-related work, for example to work at ESA, Max-Planck, ASI, CNRS, …. And why should they? The scientists’ record is enough; their work it is not considered to involve national security. A camera or spectrometer collecting data about a planet’s atmosphere or moon’s surface is exactly that: a scientific instrument collecting data to validate or not scientific ideas and to promote our knowledge about space. That’s all. I was shocked to read what my colleagues at JPL are experiencing and required to do to keep their jobs. I am very sorry for them. The security business and how it’s being amplified to paranoia levels in the US is wacky and out-of-control, in my opinion.

  62. Marc

    Scientists are creative people, and they have choices. The US has been the scientific center of gravity since the end of the Second World War, but there is nothing that requires this to be so indefinitely in the future. I would not accept a job that requires this level of intrusive invasion of my personal space. I’m not alone; people will leave or refuse to work at places with this sort of security theater nonsense. I’d bet the Republican apologists at work on this thread would also defend drug testing, etc.

    These policies will succeed only in driving talent out of federal scientific research institutions. Astrophysics is only related to “security” threats through rampant paranoia.

  63. anonymous_inEurope

    Thank goodness that rationality is prevailing on this issue:
    http://hspd12jpl.org/press.html

    Congratulations to Bob Nelson and those other valiant JPL employees fighting this Homeland Security nonsense!

  64. Like it or not, security checks are part of working for the government. And given the poor track record of scientists with security, I think it is in order. I worked for the US gov. for 22 years, and while it is a pain, it is part of the fun of working for Uncle Sam!

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