By Aliya Sternstein
May 7, 2007Lawmakers are investigating accusations that federal agencies are violating civil liberties in enforcing a presidential security directive that requires workers and contractors to undergo background checks in order to enter government buildings and computer systems.
On April 26, a bipartisan group of scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrote a letter to Reps. Rush Holt, D-N.J., and Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich. The scientists urged an end to the policy of gathering extensive personal information, including racial, ethnic, financial and medical details as part of the new security protocol.
In October, agencies were required by the directive to start issuing standard identification cards after fingerprinting and conducting thorough background examinations of each employee.
The scientists wrote that the intent to gather widespread personal information "without a probable cause" is "inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment."
"In addition to fingerprints, which will be commingled in the FBI criminal database, the additional information being required includes full financial records; full medical records, including psychological therapy; and criminal history, including traffic infractions such as carpool-lane violations."
The NASA employees noted that the probes interfere with recruitment efforts. "In the face of such intrusions, talented researchers are inclined to take positions elsewhere, where the employers have a modicum of respect for the Constitution," they wrote.
On Monday, Holt said the matter represents "a serious problem that probably extends all across the government" and will require "a lot of checking into." He does not have a specific plan of action yet, but "somebody's going to have to explain to me why that's necessary."
"Heavy-handed security can have a heavy-handed effect just like excessive secrecy can have a counterproductive effect, all in the name of better protections for Americans," Holt said. "Having been a researcher myself, [I know] research thrives in an atmosphere that is trusting and open."
According to the letter, the scientists also contacted their local congressmen. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in a statement that as a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA, he looks forward to further exploring the issue with NASA "and safeguarding both our centers and our privacy."
"There is no question that [the lab] and other space centers play a vital role in maintaining our national security," he said. "At the same time, we must be vigilant here, as elsewhere, to ensure that whatever personal information is obtained from those who work at our science centers is necessary to maintain security and used for only that purpose."
Jo Maney, the spokeswoman for Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., said his office has contacted the lab. "Mr. Dreier wants to ensure the privacy of [lab] employees is protected," she said.
In responding to the letter's complaints, NASA officials maintain that they are simply following the president's rules. NASA spokesman J.D. Harrington said, "The requirements NASA is putting in place are consistent with those policies and procedures being implemented by all other federal departments and agencies."
By Aliya Sternstein
May 7, 2007