Security Obsession Drives 100 Scientists from NASA: Top Security Clearance Needed to Help Steer the Curiosity Rover?
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.