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JPL scientists sue to block security checks for staff

The federal background checks constitute an invasion of privacy, the 28 employees say.

August 31, 2007|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

A group of 28 scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory filed suit in federal court Thursday to block implementation of a Bush administration directive requiring new background checks for employees.

The employees, including senior scientists who have worked on projects including the Voyager missions and the Cassini mission to Saturn, say they will lose their jobs unless they consent to allow the government to scrutinize such things as their sexual history.

"Our clients are exemplary employees who have spent their work lives bettering this country. This attack on their right to privacy will not be tolerated," said Dan Stormer of the Hadsell & Stormer law firm in Pasadena.

The class action lawsuit seeks a court order that would prevent JPL, in La CaƱada Flintridge, and NASA from imposing the new security background requirements. A hearing on the request for a preliminary injunction is scheduled for Sept. 24.

JPL and other NASA centers have been ordered to issue new badges to federal employees and their nongovernmental workforce under a 2004 executive order, Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12. To obtain the badges, employees must be fingerprinted, fill out a questionnaire and authorize access to some personal information.

David Mould, a NASA spokesman in Washington, said JPL employees were being treated no differently than other executive branch workers.

"We're implementing this with all other federal agencies," he said. "These are standard background checks."

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, in a meeting with employees June 4, said the increased security was a direct result of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. He said the agency would not budge on the new security order.

"We will miss those folks" who do not comply with the order, he said. "That is their choice."

Stormer and several JPL scientists who appeared with him at a news briefing at the law firm's offices said the new badges would not make the country safer.

JPL has about 5,000 employees. The badging process has been initiated on more than 4,000 of them. More than 3,000 have completed the process, Veronica McGregor, a JPL spokeswoman, said recently.

McGregor said earlier this month that a small number of JPL employees appeared to be upset by the new requirements. Now that the matter is in court, she said she had no further comment.

The employees who appeared at the news conference disagreed. They said resentment is widespread at the lab. Groups of protesters have handed out fliers at the front gate. A website has also been established as a clearinghouse for information.

Susan Foster, a technical editor and writer at JPL for 29 years, said most employees have felt too intimidated to speak out. She said she would resign rather than comply with the new requirements.

Two levels of security are covered by the new order. Only those who need access to secure areas of the laboratory are subject to more rigorous requirements, which could include reviewing medical records, officials said.

Stormer said the supposedly less-intrusive questionnaire is worse than the other one because it is open-ended. "There is no limitation" to what the government can ask for, he said. "It is a more despicable form."

Mould said he was unaware of any organized opposition to the new security requirements at NASA's other centers in Texas, Florida, Ohio and elsewhere. The employees filing the lawsuit said they had heard of opposition at other centers but cited no specifics.

Altogether, NASA has about 20,000 employees, many of whom are contractors.

Among those also appearing at the briefing were Dennis Byrnes, JPL's chief engineer for flight dynamics; Robert M. Nelson, a senior research scientist; Varoujan Gorjian, an astronomer specializing in black hole research; and his brother Zareh Gorjian, who has produced short animated films for the news media and public for numerous missions, including Cassini and the Mars rovers.

"I am truly appalled," Byrnes said. "Many will flee government service" rather than submit to these new requirements.

Besides Foster, none said they had made up their minds whether to quit rather than comply with the directive.

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john.johnson@latimes.com

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