updated 8/31/2007 5:08:33 PM ET 2007-08-31T21:08:33

Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists and engineers sued NASA and the California Institute of Technology on Thursday, challenging extensive new background checks that the space exploration center and other federal agencies began requiring in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles by 28 plaintiffs. Many have worked on such projects as the Mars rovers, the Galileo probe to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn, but none are involved in classified work, according to the suit. It seeks class-action status to represent similar JPL employees.

Caltech was sued because it manages JPL for NASA and employs its staff. The suit also named the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is involved in promulgating federal identification standards.

"It's our policy not to comment on matters in litigation," said JPL spokeswoman Veronica McGregor.

A 2004 Homeland Security presidential directive mandated new security badges for millions of federal workers and contractors. In order to receive new "smart" badges for access to buildings and computers, they must fill out a form online about employment history, past residences and any illegal drug use. The requirements apply to everyone from janitors to visiting professors.

The suit claims the directive was concerned "exclusively with the establishment of a common identification standard" and "contemplates no additional background investigation or suitability determination beyond that already required by law."

But according to the lawsuit, the Commerce Department and NASA instituted requirements that employees and contractors permit sweeping background checks to qualify for credentials and refusal would mean the loss of their jobs.

NASA calls on employees to permit investigators to delve into medical, financial and past employment records, and to question friends and acquaintances about everything from their finances to sex lives, according to the suit. The requirements apply to everyone from janitors to visiting professors.

The suit claims violations of the U.S. Constitution's 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, 14th Amendment protection against invasion of the right to privacy, the Administrative Procedure Act, the Privacy Act, and rights under the California Constitution.

Those in more sensitive positions are asked to disclose financial records, list foreign trips and give the government permission to view their medical history.

Workers also must sign a waiver giving investigators access to virtually all personal information.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include senior research scientist Robert Nelson, a 27-year veteran who leads NASA's New Millennium Program which tests or validates new technology NASA will use in space; William Bruce Banerdt, project scientist for the Mars Exploration Rovers; and Julia Bell, a senior engineer who has served on the navigation team for the Mars Odyssey and MER missions, among others.

The lawsuit was announced at a press conference at the Pasadena offices of their lawyers. A group of the plaintiffs who attended described their situation as having to choose between leaving jobs they love and giving up their constitutional rights.

Attorney Dan Stormer said the employees were being forced to "voluntarily" sign forms opening up every detail of their personal lives to federal scrutiny for two years whether or not they keep their jobs.

Plaintiff Susan Foster, a technical writer and editor at JPL for nearly 40 years, said she will resign before the badges are required, and that there were members of the clerical staff who were too "frightened" about losing their jobs to come forward.

"They don't tell you what they're looking for, they don't tell you when they're looking for it, they won't tell us what they're doing with the data," she said of the background checks.

Dennis Byrnes, a flight dynamics engineer who has worked on trajectory designs for Galileo and the Apollo moon landings, said he was afraid the requirements would prompt people to "flee" government service.

The plan is a "flawed promise of security at the expense of freedom," he said.

A hearing was set for Sept. 24 on a request for a preliminary injunction in advance of a Sept. 28 deadline by which JPL employees must fill out forms authorizing the background checks. Employees who don't meet the deadline will be barred from JPL and will be "voluntarily terminated" as of Oct. 27.

According to the lawsuit, many of the plaintiffs have been employed at JPL for decades, and none work on classified or national security materials or issues, and none have security clearances.

"Many of the plaintiffs only agreed to work for NASA with the understanding that they would not have to work on classified materials or to undergo any type of security clearance," the suit said.

Data collected from NASA missions and instruments by those plaintiffs who are researchers is in the public domain and shared with the scientific community, the suit said.

"Indeed, many of the plaintiffs have elected to work only on non-classified work expressly so their research can be subject to peer review, (and) they can collaborate with the best scientists worldwide and publish their results," it said.

In June, JPL workers who consider the background checks unnecessary and intrusive aired their complaints before NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.

Griffin said that it was a "privilege to work within the federal system, not a right" and that he would carry out the order unless it was overturned in court, according to a video of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press.

JPL, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles, prides itself on its university atmosphere. Unlike other NASA centers, JPL, has operated for decades under contract by Caltech.

But the 177-acre (72-hectare) campus and its buildings belong to NASA. To enter the grounds, workers flash identification badges at two checkpoints, and guards randomly search cars.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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