October 4, 2007

Judge Won’t Block NASA Background Checks

LOS ANGELES -- A federal judge denied a request Wednesday by more than two dozen workers at one of NASA's research labs to block a Bush administration directive requiring background checks and access to personal information.

A group of 28 employees at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena said the new security checks invaded their privacy, and sued in August to overturn the requirements.

NASA maintained it was following a government-wide policy applying to millions of civil servants and contractors.

The lab workers have until Friday to fill out forms authorizing the background checks. Those who don't will be barred from the 177-acre campus east of Los Angeles and be "voluntarily terminated" as of Oct. 27.

About 4,100 of the 5,000 employees have begun the process, though Dan Stormer, the attorney for the employees who sued, said he will file an emergency appeal with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday.

The workers have complained the requirement allowed investigators to delve into medical records and question friends about everything from their finances to sex lives. Attorneys for NASA have argued the release form was not intrusive.

"The argument that plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm by signing an authorization form is without merit," U.S. District Judge Otis Wright wrote in a 17-page order.

The judge noted that workers who lose their jobs for refusing to submit to a background check can appeal to a three-person panel. He also rejected plaintiffs' claims that the checks violated their 4th Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure and 14th Amendment rights to due process.

Wright's decision comes two days after he told both sides that he had been inclined to issue a partial preliminary injunction that would bar NASA from asking lab workers during background checks whether they had ever used illegal drugs.

"I don't want to see these employees hurt ... but I want the security of this nation preserved," Wright said Monday. "I don't want any sleepers infiltrating NASA or JPL."

Wright ultimately ruled the government had shown that workers' response to the drug use question will not be used against them in any criminal case.

Stormer said the background checks amounted to "fear-mongering."

"We believe this policy is an attempt to rule by fear and the Constitution prohibits it," Stormer said.

Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department, which represents NASA, said they were pleased with the decision and declined further comment.

A 2004 presidential directive ordered every government agency to step up security to their facilities and computer systems by issuing new identification badges to employees. To obtain the new cards, workers have to be fingerprinted, undergo a background check and sign a waiver allowing federal investigators access to personal information.

The workers who sued were employees of the California Institute of Technology, which manages the lab for NASA under contract. None works on top-secret projects, but several are senior scientists and engineers on high-profile missions including the Galileo probe to Jupiter and the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn.

In June, several workers unsuccessfully appealed to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who visited the lab on unrelated business. Griffin said he would carry out the presidential order unless it was overturned in court.


On the Net:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov

Jet Propulsion Laboratory: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov