NASA researchers balk at background checks

Several lawmakers have voiced displeasure to senior Bush administration officials about a new policy on background checks that has prompted nearly 30 scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to sue NASA. The employees, all of whom work for the California Institute of Technology, risk losing their jobs if they fail to comply with the investigations.

The scientists argue that agencies are violating civil liberties in enforcing a homeland security presidential directive that requires background checks of federal workers and contractors to enter government buildings and computer systems.

In May, they urged Reps. Rush Holt, D-N.J., Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and David Dreier, R-Calif., to help end the policy. The directive allows the gathering of extensive personal information, including ethnic, financial and medical details.

The legislators have since appealed to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin but to no avail. Holt, who wrote to Gutierrez on May 21, said on Tuesday, "I'm still not aware of any justification for this invasive and distrustful method. There seems to be no rationale for [it]."

On Thursday, 28 lab senior scientists and engineers sued NASA, Commerce and Caltech, which manages JPL, on behalf of a class of JPL employees. None of the plaintiffs have classified or sensitive positions.

"One of the concerns that we had about this whole program, given its wide breadth," was "all of this happening without congressional overview or judicial oversight," said lab Senior Research Scientist Robert Nelson, a primary plaintiff in the suit. "There has been no congressional review of [the directive] to my knowledge. This will be the first judicial test."

The plaintiffs have been informed that if they do not comply with the checks by Sept. 28, they will be deemed to have voluntarily terminated their employment with Caltech as of Oct. 27.

They have to sign a waiver permitting investigators to obtain "any information relating to my activities from schools, residential management agents, employers, criminal justice agencies, retail business establishments, or other sources of information." The data "may include, but is not limited to, my academic, residential, achievement, performance, attendance, disciplinary, employment history, and criminal history record information."

Nelson takes issue with the phrases "or other sources of information" and "may include, but is not limited to."

"They can go ahead and ask anything" under those guidelines, he said.

"The fact that the employees feel compelled to file suit shows how serious the matter is and says to me that the administration ought to suspend this practice at least temporarily, while it's examined ... in the courts and perhaps in Congress," Holt said.

Holt, a physicist, added that "government service, in general, and research, in particular, is most productive when it's conducted in a trusting atmosphere rather than a suspicious atmosphere."

NASA spokesman David Mould said the scientists, as citizens, are free to file any sort of legal proceeding that they like, but "the requirements NASA is putting in place are consistent with those policies and procedures being implemented by all other federal departments and agencies."

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