Federal Security Clearance Madness: Overkill or prudence?

eye-of-horusMany years ago I was a contract technical writer/editor at CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  I contributed to Space Program Summaries and Technical Reports.  I new how to write about technical things, edit reports, and put together reports.  In those days publishing was done by typographer who set the reports in hot lead and they would return galley sheets to be proofed, cut, and pasted using hot wax to hold the dummy document together.  Well,  that’s how it was back in the ’60s.  Now I do it all as I sit at my computer terminal.

Security in those days went from “CONFIDENTIAL” to “SECRET” to “TOP SECRET.”  Beyond that I had no need to know. I usually had a SECRET clearance for the level of work I did.  None of the items I dealt with had any valuable content (unless you were a data miner ) was very valuable.  WikiLeaks didn’t exist then but no matter there were legions of secretaries, typists, messengers, and others with access to the scientists/engineers data.  Each security clearance level is more expensive than the last.

This is 2012 and people are actively creating their dossiers (or those of their on-line avatars).  Can one be denied a clearance for a speeding ticket, smoking weed, or using steroids.  Who knows?  Might we all become “like Guy Montag of  Fahrenheit 451” or perhaps a computer enabled “Brazil?”  

These days it’s hard to find a president who hasn’t smoked a joint, had an alcohol problem, or “never inhaled.”  I’m sure that even their underwear has been vetted.  My worry is that our every movement is filmed, our indiscretions on Facebook are in our “permanent file,” as my mother used to say.  Are we spinning a cocoon of  information from which we cannot escape?  Why do we allow these excesses to encumber us with chains to the past? – Carlos

Security Obsession Drives 100 Scientists from NASA:

Top Security Clearance Needed to Help Steer the Curiosity Rover?

In order to continue working at JPL, even scientists who had been with NASA for decades

were told they would need a high-level security badge just to enter the premises.

Dave Lindorf/ This can’t be happening/OpED/ Tuesday 4 December 2012

Up on the planet Mars, there is a complex new rover named Curiosity that is driving around looking for evidence of possible life. Its every little finding is readily broadcast around the world, as was done today at a televised conference in California, to be analyzed by scientists in the US, in Europe, in China, and even in Iran.

The scientists and engineers who are managing that remarkable vehicle, as well as the fantastically successful Cassini probe orbiting Saturn, the Kepler satellite that is discovering all those planets orbiting distant stars, and all the other various satellites and space probes launched by NASA, however, are not as free as the space probes they are running.

Thanks to the zealous wackos at the Department of Homeland Security, back in 2007 during the latter part of the Bush administration an order went out that all workers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena–an organization that is run under contract to NASA by the California Institute of Technology, had to be vetted for high security clearance in order to continue doing their jobs. Never mind that not one of them was or is engaged in secret activities (NASA is a rigorously non-military, scientific agency which not only publishes all its findings, but which invites the active participation of scientists from around the world). In order to continue working at JPL, even scientists who had been with NASA for decades were told they would need a high-level security badge just to enter the premises. To be issued that badge, they were told they would need to agree undergo an intensive FBI check that would look into their prior life history, right back to college.

Not surprisingly, many scientists and engineers at JPL took umbrage at this extreme invasion of their private lives. Neighbors and old colleagues and acquaintances, ex-spouses, etc. were going to be interrogated about their drug-use history, their drinking habits, their juvenile arrest records, their sexual orientation-all those things that prying agents like to get into when doing a security clearance background check–as if they were applying for positions in the CIA or the Secret Service.

Robert Nelson, an astronomer who spearheaded an effort to prevent this pointless security effort, together with 27 other angry JPL scientists, sued JPL and the federal government in federal court. They lost initially at the district court level but won a permanent injunction at the Ninth Circuit Appellate Court. That could have been the end of it, but unfortunately, the Obama administration appealed, and in 2011 when their case got to the Roberts Supreme Court, which rarely meets an invasive government security demand it doesn’t like, the scientists lost.

Everyone who wanted to continue doing space science at JPL was told they had to submit to a security investigation.  The cost of this idiocy, which was aggressively pursued to a final pyrrhic victory in the High Court by the Obama Department of Justice (sic), has been grievous, as some 100 veteran scientists at JPL have quit or taken early retirement, rather than open their lives to the FBI.

Take Amanda Hendrix. She tells ThisCantBeHappening!, “I left JPL after 12 years (and with a good position and lots of opportunities) because I was very unhappy about the new badging requirements, particularly since they didn’t make sense to me for scientists like myself who require no access to top-secret-type materials. It was extremely disappointing to me that an institution like JPL would subject their long-time employees to such measures in order to keep their jobs.”  Hendrix is now working at the Planetary Science Institute.

NASA JPLDennis Byrnes, who began working at JPL in early 1977, and who beginning in 2005 was chief engineer for flight dynamics, making him the “lead technical person at JPL for all things related to the flight dynamics of all JPL missions both in operations and planned,” also quit his job this year rather than submit to the security investigation. He says, “My job included all aspects of mission design, navigation and some aspects of guidance and control.” Prior to 2005 he says he was deputy manager and briefly the manager of JPL’s navigation and mission design section, and was awarded the NASA Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal (NASA’s highest technical engineering award) for his work on the Galileo Project to Jupiter.

Byrnes notes that when the Supreme Court issued its ruling, it didn’t mean the security checks had to go forward. “It merely meant that NASA could proceed, but did not require it,” Byrnes says. “We urged NASA to consider other avenues similar to the Dept. of Energy, National Science Foundation and others who decided on a less restrictive implementation, but to no avail.” (Note that the DOE is responsible for maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons! Evidently then there are ways that, if a particular scientist at NASA happens to be working with something that involves national security — say nuclear rocket engine technology or something — special clearance can be required without subjecting the personnel of a whole agency to the process.)

In late 2011, when the details of the full implementation of the security checks at JPL were announced , the 68-year-old Byrnes says, “I decided to retire rather than submit to the investigations. This in no way reflected fear of discovery of anything personal (I had security clearances in the late ’60’s through mid-70’s and have nothing to hide). Rather, it was a decision on principle. I believe the whole process to be unconstitutional and a completely unnecessary abuse of government power.” He says had this new badge requirement not come along, he would have stayed on for several years longer at JPL, “since I am a recognized world expert in my field and thoroughly enjoy what I do.”

Not everyone who quit over this issue was a scientist. Susan Foster, a senior science writer at JPL, began her career there working as a secretary in 1968, even before the first Apollo moon landing. She says she quit solely because of the NASA requirement that she submit to a “waiving of my Fourth Amendment rights or be denied access to the facility” where she had worked for 44 years. She is currently unemployed and looking for work.

NSAWhat upset her most, she says, was NASA’s plan to use the information it obtained on its scientists’ and employees’ lives to create a “suitability matrix,” which would be used to see if they merited continued employment. In questioning JPL management, Foster says people learned that this “suitability matrix” would be considering things like “whether JPL scientists had participated in political demonstrations that could qualify in NASA’s scheme of things as disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, unlawful assembly” — all activities that she says many of JPL’s scientists had engaged in over the years. Says Foster, “Criteria such as ‘attitude’ are pretty frightening in their subjectivity, and ‘striking against the government’ is chilling to anyone who has supported, say, a legitimate teachers’ action.”

Remember, this is all in order to be allowed to work at a very open science agency that routinely publishes nearly all its findings.

Nelson, who was the point man for the JPL employee challenge to the new security requirement, also quit on principle rather than submit to the security investigation. An over 30-year veteran of JPL, and former head of the American Astronomical Association, Nelson says he decided he would not put up with that kind of intrusive invasion of his private life even in order to keep working at a job he loved, so he filed for retirement. After retiring earlier than he had planned from his position at JPL, Nelson is now also at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, AZ, where his title is senior scientist.

One of the big concerns expressed by the JPL scientists was that NASA would not adequately protect the incredibly personal information it was going to be gathering on its employees at JPL. NASA after all, they noted, is not the CIA or the Secret Service. It operates in the open, and doesn’t have a culture of secrecy, and as a bureaucracy, is ill-equipped to manage such information securely.

Sure enough, last week NASA was forced to admit that an employee at the agency’s offices in Washington DC had left a laptop computer containing all that newly acquired personal information on its employees in his car on Halloween night, and it had been stolen. Worse yet, further validating the concerns of JPL scientists, the data on the computer had not even been encrypted!

Now NASA has had to hire a contractor specializing in protecting potential victims of identity theft to help all the JPL scientists at risk to avoid having their savings pilfered, their credit cards stolen, and perhaps to protect them from being subjected to harassment or extortion because of information gleaned from their security files.

This disaster at JPL is a classic case of the US security state run amok, and provides yet another example of how the Obama administration, which came into office in 2009 promising to return the country to some kind of sanity and respect for the Constitution, has instead driven 100 invaluable scientists out of JPL, weakening the nation’s already struggling space program, and has put hundreds of scientists’ lives, and the lives of their families, at risk.

And all for nothing.  There are no secrets at JPL, except perhaps for the temporary one about what it was that the Curiosity rover discovered in its early soil sampling on Mars (and that proved to be not worth all the secrecy either!).

Dave Lindorff is an investigative reporter, a columnist for CounterPunch, and a contributor toBusinessweek, The Nation, Extra! andSalon.com. He received a Project Censoredaward in 2004. Dave is also a founding member of the online newspaper ThisCantBeHappening! at www.thiscantbehappening.net

About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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2 Responses to Federal Security Clearance Madness: Overkill or prudence?

  1. ritaroberts says:

    Hi Carlos, Sometimes I think that all these security measures are for our own benefit Here everything is copied three times over which makes me feel more secure.However, I do think that the old saying.” BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” is very true. so for me, I take each day as it comes and try not to worry. Some people would think that was like burying my head in the sand. I do care about all people especially the sick and infirm. Hope this makes sense to you Carlos.Life is what we make it and hope nothing spoils it.

    • carlos says:

      Hi Rita, you and I come from a time before the computer revolution. Someone could go bankrupt in Baltimore, change his/her name and move to Alaska or Australia and have a good shot at starting anew. Today, we all have numbers, photos on file and have more data about ourselves than we would like our mothers to have known. Orwell sketched it out in “1984′ and many of us scoffed at the premise of newspeak, thought crime, or doublethink, but over the course of time it becomes reasonably certain that machines will be able read our thoughts. When I had a security clearance I kept my thoughts to myself because of lack of courage and the threat of being subversive enough to deprive my family of a living. Now that I am redundant and not someone to be taken seriously at my age, I express my opinions openly.
      I think that economics demands, as Huxley puts it: Alphas, Betas, and Gammas and if the curve of natural distribution gets a little distorted, then it is in the interest of commerce to limit the possibilities of otherwise able people and make them think they are fortunate.
      Justice has been argued since Socrates died on principle and justice for the most part is for the powerful.
      Our Benjamin Franklin observed that “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” It appears that we have surrendered the liberty of being able to stroll in the park unobserved or being identified by a shuffling gait or video cameras that can, through software, identify someone in a crowd. We may spot a terrorist but the black side of this technology is that we are all numbered and identified. Our cell phones report on our location constantly.
      We have crossed this bridge and there is probably nothing we can do but accept things as they are but these security measures are hardly providential.

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