JPL Employee Privacy Fight Comes to a Head

Miss-LibertyFor the past two years, a small band of senior scientists and engineers at Pasadena, California’s Jet Propulsion Lab have pursued a lawsuit against their employers at Caltech and NASA to protect themselves—and by extension, all federal employees—against the unreasonable invasions of their privacy under a presidential order signed by former President George W. Bush.

Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union Pasadena-Foothills Chapter recognized these 28 JPL employees for taking a stand that put their careers and livelihoods on the line, including a demand read to each of them by JPL managers to sign the document that day or clear out their desks, an order that was stayed only by a last-minute injunction.

In accepting the group’s award, senior scientist and lead plaintiff Dr. Robert Nelson said that the government now has until November 1st to file documents to have the case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12
Commonly called HSPD-12, the issue seems harmless enough, as it simply creates a uniform badge that would let someone into any federal facility—a natural, though perhaps politically motivated, outgrowth of heightened security concerns following the events of September 11th during the Bush Administration.

When the order was presented to them, a number of JPL employees became concerned, as the language indicated that the government could investigate virtually any aspect of their lives, and they later learned that an important court case—Department of the Navy v. Egan—ruled that there could be no appeal to an adverse finding. So, if they were dinged for a past indiscretion, they’d be out on the street just like that.

Bob Nelson

Bob Nelson

Hundreds of JPL employees voted with their feet by simply ignoring the order to sign the document. The small group of senior scientists recognized by the ACLU decided to take more formal action, supported quietly with anonymous gifts of cash and emotional support by many of their JPL colleagues.

To them, the document sounded like an open-ended fishing expedition. “Most of us have advanced degrees. We write papers for learned scientific journals,” Nelson said. “We know what it means to read what you sign.”

What they saw was a presidential directive, not a law. “A law is passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president,” Nelson continued. “This is just an order signed by President Bush.”

Furthermore, there was nothing in the order about invading anyone’s privacy. According to Nelson, “Bureaucrats deep in the bowels of the Department of Commerce cooked up the requirement for a background investigation.”

Court Case Advances
As their case moved through the legal process, the HSPD-12 group won a major battle this past June, when Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote on behalf of the US Court of Appeals of the 9th Circuit that the federal government violated the privacy of the JPL employees.

“At one point in the hearing, the government’s lawyers said that these background checks have been routine going back to the 1950s,” Nelson said. “Judge Wardlow said, ‘I showed this affidavit to everyone on my staff. Not one said they had ever seen it.’”

“That was our Perry Mason moment,” said Nelson.

Given current Supreme Court’s conservative-leaning makeup, Nelson’s legal team hopes the Court refuses to hear the case and orders that the trial proceed at a lower level. Better yet, more sympathetic members of the Obama Administration could protect Constitutional guarantees of privacy by voiding the order.

Nelson encouraged the audience to support their fight by writing their local congressional representatives, Attorney General Erik Holder, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, or President Obama himself, who can simply rescind the order with a stroke of his pen:

  • President Barack Obama, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500
  • Attorney General Erik Holder, U.S. Department of Justice, 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20530-0001
  • Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Office of the Solicitor General, 950 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20530-0001; 202.514.2203
  • Congressman David Drier, 510 East Foothill Boulevard, Suite 201, San Dimas, CA 91773; 909.575.6226
  • Congressman Xavier Becerra, 910 Sunset Blvd., Suite 810, Los Angeles, CA 90026; 213.483-1425

We encourage LA Progressive readers to follow suit.

The full list of JPL Plaintiffs, many of whom were present for the ACLU award presentation:

Robert Nelson, William Banerdt, Julia Bell, Josette Bellan, Dennis Byrnes, George Carlisle, Kent Robert Crossin, Larry D’Addario, Riley Duren, Peter Eisenhardt, Susan Foster, Matthew Golombek, Varoujan Gorjian, Zareh Gorjian, Robert Haw, James Kulleck, Sharon Laubach, Christian Lindensmith, Amanda Mainzer, Scott Maxwell, Timothy McElrath, Susan Paradise, Konstantin Penanen, Celeste Satter, Peter Shames, Amy Hale, William Walker, and Paul Weissman

Dick PriceEarlier stories on this evolving case:

Dick Price, Editor, LA Progressive


  1. Todd Johnson says

    With the quote given, and asserting the article is inaccurate, is a mistake on my part. The article quotes Bob Nelson, and I should have stated that Bob Nelson’s assertion is inaccurate.

  2. Todd Johnson says

    I feel that rescinding HSPD-12 would be the biggest mistake the administration could make. With over 1 million cards in circulation, that would represent an awful large waste of public funds. The article is inaccurate in stating that the Department of Commerce “cooked up the requirement for a background investigation”. The requirements for the background investigation are managed by the Office of Personnel Management. Really, a National Agency Check with Inquiries (NAC-I) is very minimal compared to a Single Scope Background Investigation. It is to ensure you are not a wanted criminal! Take some time and research the background checks the administration was performing on White House staff and other associated positions.

    Also, is Judge Wardlow’s staff in the executive branch, or the judicial branch? There just may be a difference in requirements…

  3. Chris Rowe says

    I support the rights of the NASA/JPL employees to protect their privacy. Recently I have learned that any communications – email or otherwise – are not protected by any privacy act. So if someone writes to a government agency thinking they are speaking in conficence, then their emails or letters are subject to a Freedom of Information Act or Public Records Act request.
    With this being the information age, what we take for granted – our Freedon of Speech, is more at risk than anytime before. People use video cameras at public meetings and events. Some people use video recorders. What we do can be edited and uploaded to the internet at any time.
    So “Freedom of Speech” and the “Right to Privacy” are at odds. Even our phone calls can be heard on speakers. If you don’t want people to hear what you are saying, I don’t know how you can communicate anymore without the fear that someone is listening or recording.
    Good luck to the professors. Thank you for your courage to stand up for what is right.

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