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