HSPD 12: It’s Not Rocket Science


Bob Nelson and Susan Paradise

Thwarting the Bush Administration’s latest assault on individual liberty, a small band of Jet Propulsion Laboratory employees have fought and won—at least for now—a battle against government efforts to trample their rights to privacy and indirectly limit their scientific inquiry.

The assault began innocently enough. In tightening security after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, the Department of Homeland Security issued Presidential Directive No. 12 (HSPD 12), which ordered all federal organizations to adopt a uniform badge that every employee and contractor would wear in entering U.S. government facilities.

The problem lies in the implementation—and possibly the underlying motivation—according to Bob Nelson a long-time JPL senior research scientist who spoke recently about the issue to the La Canada Flintridge Democratic Club. “Although they’re Caltech employees, JPLers must let the government and its contract investigators check into financial, criminal, and health records—without limit. The penalty for refusal is termination.”

But JPL’s 7,000 employees and contractors—scientists, engineers, and support staff—are civilians, not government employees. They work for Caltech—the California Institute of Technology—which operates the Lab under a NASA contract to develop the robotic space missions and Mars robotic rovers that have captivated the world’s attention in recent years. “Most of us operate in the public domain, working on unclassified space missions,” Nelson reported. “Only five or 10 percent of us work on classified projects that might justify these extensive background checks.”

The form JPLers and their counterparts at NASA and other federal agencies must sign—Government Form SF85—allows for an open-ended fishing expedition into their private lives for information having nothing to with their work, according to Susan Paradise, a JPL engineer who joined Nelson at the La Canada Flintridge meeting, which was held within a stone’s throw of JPL. The audience included a number of past and present Lab employees.

“They’ve identified an extensive, vague list of potentially objectionable behavior—from sodomy to personality conflicts to abusive language in the workplace to homosexuality,” said Paradise. “And if you fail this background check, Caltech wouldn’t even be informed of the reason for termination. You could lose your job and have no recourse.”

Bucking City Hall

In response, a group of 28 senior scientists and engineers—including Nelson, a lead plaintiff, and Paradise—sued Caltech and the federal government last year to stop the unwarranted intrusions into their privacy. They hired Dan Stormer of the civil rights law firm of Hadsell, Stormer, Keeny, Richardson, & Renick LLP, to press their suit.

District Court Judge Otis Wright III—a recent Bush Administration appointee and rightwing ideologue—found no merit in the suit and threw it out. “But our lawyers had prepared an emergency appeal,” said Nelson. A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously disagreed with Judge Wright, staying the background checks, at least temporarily, and saying the JPL employees’ case should be heard.

“The Appeals Court found that the form we were forced to sign was so fundamentally flawed that all federal background checks must be flawed as well,” Nelson said. “That might mean that our case would have to be heard before the Supreme Court.”

Consternation about the background checks reportedly is widespread at the Lab. The senior scientists who brought the suit are in a somewhat protected class, as they often have national or even international stature and bring business to the Lab through the research grants and proposals they win. A similar group of employees without that clout might have had a harder time fighting the system. Paradise recalls joining seven other female JPL staff in writing a letter to JPL management about sexual harassment, only to be met with stony silence.

In this case, the response from their fellow JPL employees has been both heartfelt and heart-warming. “Another 300 JPLers signed petitions saying that they had signed the forms involuntarily,” Paradise reported. “And we’ve learned that another thousand have apparently done nothing. They haven’t complied with the order.”

Nelson and Paradise reported on thug tactics by JPL managers fearful for their jobs, who “read the riot act” to staff members who hesitated to sign, threatening their jobs and making it very difficult for JPL employees to communicate about the issue.“But we bucked city hall and we won,” Nelson reports. “Just the other day, a JPL manager quietly gave me $100 for our defense fund—and a grad student who couldn’t afford it gave me a check for $200.”

Patriotic Paranoia

Legal maneuverings on the case continue, with Judge Wright recently releasing Caltech from liability and the JPL plaintiffs now appealing to have the injunction made permanent. Meanwhile, Nelson—who was twice elected as a delegate to the Democratic Party’s national convention—encourages political action to parallel the legal work he and his colleagues are undertaking.“This presidential directive isn’t a law,” he said. “It’s just a presidential opinion. Congress hasn’t passed it; the courts haven’t investigated it.” Nelson has approached two scientists serving in Congress—Vern Ellers (R-Michigan) and Rush Holt (D-New Jersey)—about the case and found sympathetic ears.

Nelson also suggests supporting Democrat Russ Warner (pictured) in his race against Rep. David Dreier (R-San Gabriel Valley), who had the smallest plurality of any Republican incumbent in the last elections and has supported the Department of Homeland Security directive.

Nelson and Paradise see a political agenda at work behind this Bush Administration effort. “It’s a matter of government control,” Nelson said. “They want science the way they want it.”

russ_warner.jpgJPL near-Earth space missions have been pivotal in making the airtight case for global warming and its impact on our environment. “Big Oil—the oil industry—doesn’t want to hear about it,” he said. “This is an implied threat, part of the ‘Politics of Fear.’”

Indeed, a number of other federal agencies have set aside the presidential directive as too difficult and costly to implement. NASA pursued it so vigorously because NASA Director Michael Griffin is a “True Believer,” according to Nelson—one of Vice President Dick Cheney’s hard-line faction.

Dick & Sharon’s LA Progressive will continue its coverage of this controversial tug of war. Stay tuned for updates as this saga unfolds. If you’d like to support the JPL resistance effort, go to www.hspd12jpl.org. To support Russ Warner’s campaign, go to www.warnerforcongress.com.

(Note: My wife, Sharon Kyle, is a current employee of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We are both impacted by these developments)


  1. Ted Radamaker says

    Injunction or not, I doubt this will stop the FBI from investigating anyone, to any depth, on any pretext they may devise.

  2. admin says

    For Immediate Release:

    When: Wednesday April 9, 2008 at 2 P.M.
    Where: 2247 Rayburn Office Building, Washington DC

    A House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee chaired by Congressman Edolphus Towns of New York will hold hearings on Wednesday April 9, 2008, on the status of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 and its impact on federal employees and contractors. According to the subcommittee website, http://governmentmanagement.oversight.house.gov/story.asp?ID=1833 The hearing will release a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report finding that the program is incurring high costs but providing little benefit to date, and will explore the impact that implementation of the program may have on the current security clearance issuance backlog.

    As currently implemented, HSPD#12 requires federal employees and contractors to submit to intrusive and detailed background investigations into all matters of their personal lives. If an employee in good standing declines to permit these investigations he or she will be denied access to federal facilities and hence lose his or her job. Federal employees and contractors have voiced concerns about HSPD#12 to the courts and to congress. Last year, four senior-level scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (managed by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena) wrote to Congressmen Rush Holt and Vern Ehlers requesting congressional review of HSPD12. JPL employees also took the matter to court.

    Robert M. Nelson, a Senior Research Scientist at JPL and the lead plaintiff in the JPL case said, “These congressional hearings are an important development in this case insofar as they point out the high cost and the low efficacy of the HSPD12 program. Of further importance is that the background checks being conducted under HSPD12 fly in the face of traditional American values as specified in the U.S. Constitution. Congress has taken a first step in restoring balance between our constitutional rights and national security by releasing this report. The bottom line, however, is that these investigations are morally wrong.”  Background:

    The JPL legal case evolves from a hearing last year in which employees of NASA’s JPL sought injunctive relief against their employer, Caltech, and NASA in order to prevent intrusive personal background investigations. Caltech and NASA argued that these intrusions were required under Homeland Security Presidential Directive #12, an executive order signed by President George W. Bush. Most JPL employees (including all of the plaintiffs in the case) do no classified work. Federal District Judge Otis Wright III dismissed the case on October 3, 2007. The employees appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and an emergency temporary injunction was granted on October, 5 2007, just hours before JPL was to begin advertising for replacements for those employees who were deemed non-compliant. A second panel of the Ninth Circuit Court heard arguments on this case on December 5.

    On January 11, 2008, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that “The Appellants have demonstrated serious questions as to certain of their claims on which they are likely to succeed on the merits, and the balance of hardships tips sharply in their favor. We therefore conclude that the district court abused its discretion in denying Appellants’ motion for a preliminary injunction, and we reverse and remand.” In addition, the Ninth Circuit Court reinstated Caltech as a defendant in the case stating ”The court found Caltech did do more [than merely follow government orders — it established, on its own initiative, a policy that JPL employees who failed to obtain federal identification badges would not simply be denied access to JPL, they would be terminated entirely from Caltech’s employment.”

    All court documents relevant to the case can be found at HSPD12JPL.org

  3. Scott Wilson says

    I remember what we went through in 1950’s when we were required to sign a loyalty oath to be able to teach in Cal. after several years with LAUSD. It takes courage and conviction to fight these things.

    • Dick Price says

      Scott: It is remarkable that these people would put their careers — well-paid, prestigious careers — on the line for principle. They’re showing the rest of us how to stand up to the climate of fear that is so much a part of the current Bush administration.

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