HSPD-12 checks prompt lawsuit

A group of 28 scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., has launched a salvo against the federal government to protest what they see as intrusive background checks under the mandatory identity verification program, Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12.With a critical deadline for background checks set one month from now, the JPL employees filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles Aug. 30 against NASA, the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA, and the Commerce Department, which has a role in setting federal identification standards.In the complaint, the employees are seeking a preliminary injunction to block the National Agency Check and Inquiries (NACI), which is a basic background check. Under HSPD-12, NACI investigations are required for federal contractors, such as the JPL employees — who work for Caltech — and new federal employees. The deadline for completing HSPD-12 background checks is Oct. 27. Without background checks, the JPL workers may not be able to receive HSPD-12-compliant identification cards and could be terminated after that date.The JPL plaintiffs contend that the checks are intrusive and could lead to inquiries into their sexual lives.“How many talented scientists and engineers will NASA and JPL lose because reputable scientists will not submit to intrusive government searches of their personal lives?” plaintiff Varoujan Gorjian, an astronomer who has worked at JPL for nine years, asked in the lawsuit. “Compromising the rights of people who study planets, stars and galaxies does not increase our security here on Earth.”NASA spokesman David Mould said the background-check process involves submitting fingerprints and completing one of four surveys, depending on the kind of security clearance an employee holds.“Most, if not all, people at JPL would require the minimal level of security clearance [check],” Mould said. Mould would not comment on the lawsuit, but he said there were no questions on the forms that violate employees’ privacy rights. However, some employees — and lawmakers — disagree. Earlier this year, JPL workers expressed their concerns in a letter to Reps. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and David Dreier (R-Calif.). Holt appealed to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, saying that the checks could alienate NASA talent.“I have received several complaints from scientists who fear these expensive and distrustful practices will make it significantly harder to retain and attract necessary talent,” Holt wrote in a letter sent to Gutierrez in May.“By fostering an environment of extreme distrust and disregard for privacy, the implementation of HSPD-12 is costing us valuable human resources and, worse, runs contrary to the values and laws we have long held as a nation,” Holt wrote.Lee Stone, vice president of legislative affairs at the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, NASA’s largest union, said the problem isn’t HSPD-12, but NASA’s implementation of the background checks.Stone said because of the rapidly approaching HSPD-12 deadline, initial instructions for the background check included “improper demands for the release of more intrusive information from many contractors.”
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