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JPL Scientists Take NASA To the Supreme Court 238

Posted by timothy
from the ask-kozinksi dept.
CheshireCatCO writes "Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, concerned about background checks now required of federal employees, sued NASA to suspend the checks back in 2007. The case has now worked its way up to the Supreme Court. At stake: whether all federal employees can be forced to undergo open-ended background checks whether or not the employee has exposure to classified or sensitive information. The background checks, which can include interviewing people from employees' pasts such as landlords and teachers, may seek, among other things, sexual histories."
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JPL Scientists Take NASA To the Supreme Court

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  • Go JPL (Score:5, Insightful)

    by colinrichardday (768814) <colin.day.6@hotmail.com> on Saturday September 25, 2010 @06:44PM (#33700002)

    I hope the JPL scientists win!

  • by Nyder (754090) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:01PM (#33700118) Journal

    The "sexual history" questions will unfortunately remain relevant in background checks for highly important/secret positions so long as sexual history related topics remain highly taboo in society. The (intended) purpose of these questions is to determine if the applicant has anything in their past that would make particularly them subjective to blackmail.

    They leave a bad taste in my mouth too, which is why I avoid those sorts of jobs...

    Maybe people should just stop be ashamed by crap they do and not worry about it?

    We all have gotten together with people we didn't want people to know. Chances are, people already know and don't care.

    Seriously, blackmail only works if you let it.

    You want to blackmail me? go for it. and good luck!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:03PM (#33700124)

    The "sexual history" questions will unfortunately remain relevant in background checks for highly important/secret positions

    The question is whether intrusive background checks are appropriate for scientists working on unclassified projects. I don't see what the "importance" of the project has to do with it. If they don't have access to national security secrets, why should the government be allowed to go on a fishing expedition through their private lives?

  • by Concerned Onlooker (473481) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:05PM (#33700134) Homepage Journal

    "The (intended) purpose of these questions is to determine if the applicant has anything in their past that would make particularly them subjective to blackmail."

    Yes, but blackmail for what? The latest images from Mars? The shoestring budget numbers for a project? The motor control code for actuators? I think people have the perception that what goes on at JPL is top secret stuff when in fact just about all of it gets released to the public sooner than later. We're talking research-y stuff here. Not DOD. And where people might be working on DOD stuff then the security clearances come into play.

    These abusive background checks might make a little more sense for those pursuing a secret clearance, but for the day-to-day activities at JPL they are just that. Abusive.

  • by vux984 (928602) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:11PM (#33700162)

    We all have gotten together with people we didn't want people to know.

    Infidelity and other sexual indiscretions can easily damage or even ruin marriages and political careers. It doesn't really matter whether or not YOU are ashamed of what YOU did. What matters is what EVERYONE else thinks.

    Blackmail will continue to work as long as your spouse and/or the voters care about what YOU have been up to.

  • by Sir_Lewk (967686) <sirlewk.gmail@com> on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:14PM (#33700188)

    More accurately, people should stop caring about the crap other people do. Blackmail works if the people around you (your boss, your wife/family, your coworkers, your friends, your neighbors...) let it.

    The spouse one is a big one. There can be big financial consequences involved there.

  • by AnonymousClown (1788472) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:22PM (#33700234)
    That's his point.

    If one is in the closet, it is usually for a pretty good reason. When you have people in this society that will literally get violent if they find that one is gay, one would have to be very careful who he tells in order to not get killed. Gays are still being murdered in this society. And if you get a boss who's belief system thinks that homosexuality is an affront to God or something like that, he has to cover themselves to have employment.

    Everyone has something to hide - or I can make anything about you be turned into something that needs to be hidden.

  • Suspect? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:23PM (#33700240)

    Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, concerned about background checks now required of federal employees, sued NASA to suspect the checks back in 2007.

    I always suspected the checks. Oh wait, did you mean suspend?

  • by dbIII (701233) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:26PM (#33700254)

    Seriously, blackmail only works if you let it.

    It's not just blackmail. Stupid HR people may rarely work, but when they do it can be preventing people from getting jobs due to trivialities on their files. You'll even get a "40 and still a virgin - can't have him working here" response if that sort of thing is on file. Anything other than what the HR people consider ideal from their own personal background puts you at a disadvantage if it's on file. The only real answer is to never let them see this stuff if it is collected.

  • by Required Snark (1702878) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:31PM (#33700280)
    Catch-22 http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=7225 [sheilaomalley.com]

    Almost overnight the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was in full flower, and Captain Black was enraptured to discover himself spearheading it. He had really hit on something. All the enlisted men and officers on combat duty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their map cases from the intelligence tent, a second loyalty oath to receive their flak suits and parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath for Lieutenant Balkington, the motor vehicle officer, to be allowed to ride from the squadron to the airfield in one of the trucks. Every time they turned around there was another loyalty oath to be signed. They signed a loyalty oath to get their pay from the finance officer, to obtain their PX supplies, to have their hair cut by the Italian barbers. To Captain Black, every officer who supported his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a competitor, and he planned and plotted twenty-four hours a day to keep one step ahead. He would stand second to none in his devotion to country. When other officers had followed his urging and introduced loyalty oaths of their own, he went them one better by making every son of a bitch who came to his intelligence tent sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then he introduced the pledge of allegiance, and after that “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, four choruses. Each time Captain Black forged ahead of his competitors, he swung upon them scornfully for their failure to follow his example. Each time they followed his example, he retreated with concern and racked his brain for some new stratagem that would enable him to turn upon them scornfully again.

    Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other. When they voiced objection, Captain Black replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to. To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he replied that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as he forced them to. And to anyone who questioned the morality, he replied that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the greatest piece of music ever composed. The more loyalty oaths a person signed, the more loyal he was; to Captain Black it was as simple as that, and he had Corporal Kolodny sign hundreds with his name each day so that he could always prove he was more loyal than anyone else.

  • by Reaperducer (871695) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:36PM (#33700302)

    You make the assumption that someone working at JPL will always work at JPL. People get transferred to other jobs within thier organizations all the time. And there are parts of NASA that do work for DOD (putting secret satellites into orbit leaps to mind, there are probably many others).

    You also make the assumption that JPL never does any research for or fills requests for any other government agency, or that the expertise of its staff are never called on for use in other departments.

    It doesn't take a lot of imagination or experience working in a regular office to know that once they've graduated from the cubicle farm, employees are pretty mobile, and knowledge spreads like a virus.

  • by jackbird (721605) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:41PM (#33700340)
    That's what actual security clearances are for, and not the subject of this lawsuit.
  • Re:Go JPL (Score:1, Insightful)

    by ChipMonk (711367) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:09PM (#33700452) Journal
    "An outside observer"? That would explain how you presume to sit there in judgment of us who have to live with the Community Organizer's capricious policies, foisted upon us by his choicest advisers who have never had private-sector jobs in their lives. The inconsistency of those policies is clearly not leading us out of the tar pits, but rather burying us in them even more.

    Wherever you are, do us a favor and stay there.
  • by ChipMonk (711367) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:13PM (#33700480) Journal
    If JPL didn't care about who a job candidate slept with 20 years ago, that job candidate would be a lot less likely to become a blackmail target.
  • by vux984 (928602) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:25PM (#33700540)

    That's not what we're talking about here. We aren't talking about a highly public figure.

    Right, so my comments about political career misses the mark a bit in this context, but the spouse/family aspect is still right on target.

    We're talking about an employee who might want to keep something secret, like porn preferences.

    Not really. Unless the porn preferences are illegal its not going to matter all that much to most people. I doubt anyone has ever really been successfully blackmailed with the fact that they like redheads in bondage porn.

    Revelations of infidelity and bisexuality/homosexuality will still be effective blackmail though, because they can still trash your marriage / family / personal relationships - whether you are ashamed or not.

    And illegal porn will of course be effective blackmail, along with any other blackmail involving crime.

  • Re:Go JPL (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:28PM (#33700554)

    "An outside observer"? That would explain how you presume to sit there in judgment of us who have to live with the Community Organizer's capricious policies, foisted upon us by his choicest advisers who have never had private-sector jobs in their lives. The inconsistency of those policies is clearly not leading us out of the tar pits, but rather burying us in them even more.

    Wherever you are, do us a favor and stay there.

    "Men in the game are blind to what men looking on see clearly"

  • by vux984 (928602) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:38PM (#33700600)

    If you don't give a shit if your spouse finds out, even if your spouse would care a lot about it themselves, there is no leverage to blackmail.

    If you didn't give a shit you wouldn't be keeping it a secret in the first place.
    The fact that you are keeping it secret indicates that you put some value in it being a secret.

    But I agree that 'how much value' you put into it remaining a secret is a personal valuation, that isn't directly tied to how upset they will be. ... but if you value your spouse highly, and you firmly believe that if they found out they would leave, then you will value the secret highly.

    The point I made originally is that blackmail is not founded on a simple question of 'shame' but one of consequences.

  • Re:Go JPL (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Peach Rings (1782482) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:40PM (#33700604) Homepage

    Insightful, really? Where's the patriot act rage? The DMCA rage? How quickly people forget that Bush told us there were weapons of mass destruction (there weren't) and waged a war of aggression that cost us nearly 50 times the original estimate of $60 billion dollars. That high-level Bush administration officials were personally responsible for suppressing evidence of human rights violations in overseas American prisons. That people are only now being released with our apologies for being held without trial for almost 10 years. That civil rights were eroded beyond anyone's wildest imagination in the anti-terrst frenzy after 9/11.

    And what about the financial crisis? Which would you rather have, Obama stealing thousands from the pockets of millionaires [huffingtonpost.com] or a downward spiral of economic peril that was the consequence of a presidential administration's pathological revulsion to reasonable regulation.

  • by billstewart (78916) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:47PM (#33700646) Journal

    I care much more about issues like illegal prisons, torture (whether or not by that name), secret kidnappings, state secrets, assassinations without trials, warrantless wiretapping, and policies like that than I do about downloading free music, but Obama's Just-Us Department is defending the Bush Administration's policies on all of those things. Instead of Hopey Changey Stuff, we've been getting Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss. And the kind of people who want the uncontrolled spying on people's music download habits get along really well with the politically-motivated spooks who want the same powers and same infrastructure.

    As far as the economy goes, Keynes himself was smarter than most people who use his name to describe themselves - it's not surprising that the Obama Administration tried to fix Bush's massive economic damage by borrowing and spending lots of money, but if that were all it took, the way Bush racked up deficits by spending money like a drunken sailor with a bunch of stolen credit cards should have helped things instead of hurting them. It's certainly better to spend them on domestic pork-barrel projects than on wars, but Obama hasn't slowed down the wars by much either. There's a better excuse for it (naive optimism instead of cynical irresponsibility), but I don't see it getting us out of the tar pits, since we're still going to have to pay that money back, and with the demographic hit of all the boomers going on Social Security in the next decade, the general budget will need to start running surpluses, not deficits, which will be tough with fewer actual workers.

    (And religious bigotry's not pretty even if you are attacking politically correct targets. Blamin' Texans is ok, though...)
    (Also, I once pulled a bird out of the La Brea Tar Pits; it was still alive, but the folks at the museum said it was unlikely to recover from getting stuck in that stuff.)

  • by billstewart (78916) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:58PM (#33700672) Journal

    Blackmail isn't always about things you personally feel ashamed of - I've had friends who got fired from their jobs for being gay (hey, she didn't know her boss was a homophobe when she started working there), and there are people whose families would freak out if they knew.

    One of the TLAs, probably NSA, once wanted to hire a guy who was gay, some time after it had stopped being illegal in most of the US. The deal they made was that he had to come out to his family, so it couldn't be used for blackmail. If it had been the Army, either under DADT or the previous Hunt Down The Queer Witches policy, blackmail would have still been a possibility even if his family was fine with it.

  • by UnknowingFool (672806) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @09:28PM (#33700766)

    You make the assumption that someone working at JPL will always work at JPL. People get transferred to other jobs within thier organizations all the time. And there are parts of NASA that do work for DOD (putting secret satellites into orbit leaps to mind, there are probably many others).

    You are making the assumption that your security clearance requirement (and subsequent check) never changes when your job changes. When you get a job with a higher clearance requirement, there will be a check. If you don't have any clearance, you will be investigated for one.

  • by Ellis D. Tripp (755736) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @09:32PM (#33700780) Homepage

    NASA is a civilian agency, not a "wing" of any branch of the military.

    Military space operations are run by the USAF Space Command and/or SAC.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 25, 2010 @09:35PM (#33700794)

    Oh it doesn't have to, we have you secret video tapes right here mister chicken man.

    You forgot the blackmail.

    We have your secret video tapes right here mister chicken man, leave the keys to your office building under the dumpster outside if you don't want us to send it to your mother.

    FTFY [substitute "wife" or "the press" if they are married or have a public reputation to protect]

    AFAIK, the only defense against this sort of thing is either prevention (background check) or openness (antisocial weirdness that prevents you being embarrassed about having a bad rep), and savvy (to recognise social engineering and not fall for it). Alternative better ideas would be neat if you have any?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 25, 2010 @09:37PM (#33700802)

    Also, nations at war often tend to think it's the 50's again..

  • Re:Go JPL (Score:5, Insightful)

    by chrisG23 (812077) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @09:45PM (#33700830)
    You make it sound like the economy is a simple entity that immediately responds to the actions of those in control of the purse strings, budgets, and most importantly, the fiscal policy. It is not that simple. The seeds for the recession that officially began in December 2007 (National Bureau of Economic Research) were laid in place well before the Congress shifted to a Democrat majority in January of 2007. It would have happened regardless of who was in Congress for the 11 months prior to the start.
  • Re:Go JPL (Score:5, Insightful)

    by causality (777677) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @11:39PM (#33701224)

    Really? Is that all you care about is downloading free music?

    The point is that he had a choice between representing a monied interest and representing the people in the form of no such cronyism. He made the same choice that any politician with any distant hope of high office has learned to make.

    The born again Christian paranoid Texan who left Obama one fuckwad of a mess to clean up was selling you out far further than trolling IP addresses for illegally sharing content.

    Absolutely. Now, consider this: the same sponsors, corporate interests, vested interests in the status quo, and, if you like, the same Establishment brought us both Presidents. This system is sometimes called the "military industrial complex" after a speech [h-net.org] given by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961. Meanwhile, two parties with a complete duopoly on any important public office means an affordably low number of factions to buy off, err I mean to support their campaigns. Do you see the problem?

    As an outside observer who is not American, when I look at the mess GWB left for BO to deal with I have to say he's doing one hell of a job. The USA would be a third-world country by now if it wasn't for the crazy hard decisions Obama had to make to keep the US from tanking more than it did!

    You're talking about a man who hires staffers with opinions like "never let a good crisis go to waste." If that were me in charge I'd have fired that person immediately as a public service. That's an attitude that is unworthy of proximity to power and not to be trusted with it.

    He's not a God or the second coming of Christ, but he's doing a pretty good job leading the US out of the tar pits.

    He's a puppet but he's a really charismatic one. The whole skill of politics is to adopt a position because of the way that the wind blows and then wear it so naturally that you must have felt that way your entire life. The author of the script he's always reading from a teleprompter is the one you should be looking at.

    None of this is new, it's just that Presidents in the past would speak extemporaneously at least some significant portion of the time. The basic motivations that determine their choices remain extremely similar, with insignificant differences to which much attention is called. That's why the whole "Left" and "Right" deal is just two forms of Statism. Their differences concern only implementation details. But the constant bickering over those "ideological differences" distracts from the realization that they are indirect paths to Statism. The name for this effect is "divide and conquer".

    The only interesting question is to what degree this arrangement is deliberate. Is it the product of a great deal of intentional engineering, or is the political environment more like an evolutionary pressure in the sense that politicians who aren't like this have no hope of competing with politicians who are? The very high incumbency rate of Congress gives one the impression that failing to really represent the interests of the people carries negligible political consequences.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 26, 2010 @01:44AM (#33701614)

    At stake: whether all federal employees can be forced to undergo open-ended background checks

    Really? I don't see that in the questions being answered by the supreme court. [supremecourt.gov]

    That would be question 2 in the link you provided.

  • by Firethorn (177587) on Sunday September 26, 2010 @02:58AM (#33701806) Homepage Journal

    The NRA has had a history of supporting pro-gun rights candidates irregardless of party. I've paid attention. While there hasn't been a lot of movement on the federal level, there's been quite a bit at the state level. We're down to, what, 2 states that don't allow concealed carry at some level? Then again, speaking of federal level there was the strike-down of the DC gun ban. But I wouldn't associate supreme court judges with parties...

    The problem, as I see it, is that the Democrats for the longest time seemed to insist on putting gun control advocates up for election, not to mention making gun control a party plank. I can't blame the NRA for taking the party at it's word and assuming that a candidate, unless he or she has stated differently, follows their party's platform, to include the gun control bits. You have some of the most vehement gun grabbers in the democrat party. Feinstein, for example. Kennedy, before his passing, was recorded proposing banning all rifles capable of penetrating soft body armor - He listed the '30-30' as an example of a gun caliber to be banned. The .30-30 was developed on the cusp of the widespread replacement of black powder with smokeless. It's primarily for lever action rifles, and was never intended for military use. It's generally considered on the bottom end of cartridges suitable for deer hunting today. Yes, it'll cut through soft body armor like butter, but so won't pretty much every other center-fire rifle round.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that Obama hasn't touched gun control stuff. Because, frankly speaking, he's a politician from Chicago and doesn't have the best record.

  • by Jafafa Hots (580169) on Sunday September 26, 2010 @03:51AM (#33701952) Homepage Journal

    This would require that people aren't what they are - ignorant, hypocritical, self-centered, immature idiots who hold every other person on the planet to a standard orders of magnitude higher than that to which they hold themselves.

    We are a country that impeached a president over a consensual sex act.
    (Oh don't start whining wingnuts, yes it was technically for "lying" about a sex act after his perfectly legal consensual and private sex life was the subject of a multi-year, multimillion dollar taxpayer funded investigation. You should thank me instead of whining - the reality actually makes you look MORE pathetic, craven and childish.)

    We are a nation of six year olds.

  • Re:Go JPL (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Raenex (947668) on Sunday September 26, 2010 @06:30AM (#33702310)

    That civil rights were eroded beyond anyone's wildest imagination in the anti-terrst frenzy after 9/11.

    Wildest imagination? A mass round-up of Arabs/Muslims and exporting them from the country. No, not a small number of people with terrorists ties. I'm talking Japanese-size round-up of American citizens, as was done in World War II, but exporting instead.

    You really don't have any sense of history to be making claims like above.

  • Re:Go JPL (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Jawnn (445279) on Sunday September 26, 2010 @09:24AM (#33703060)

    That civil rights were eroded beyond anyone's wildest imagination in the anti-terrst frenzy after 9/11.

    Wildest imagination? A mass round-up of Arabs/Muslims and exporting them from the country. No, not a small number of people with terrorists ties. I'm talking Japanese-size round-up of American citizens, as was done in World War II, but exporting instead.

    We really don't have any sense of history to be making claims like above.

    There. Fixed that for ya'. You and I, and a handful of others, may have seen the glaring similarities between these two disgraceful periods in our nation's history, but the collective "we", the citizenry as a whole, and the journalists and pundits in particular, missed it almost entirely. I don't know which is more shameful, ignoring the huge human rights issue or ignoring the blatant raiding of the nation's treasury for the benefit of a few well connected cronies, for it is the latter crime that has had the most immediate and painful impact on all of us. Scorecard aside, the fact that no one has been brought to justice for either of these crimes is cause for holding a grim outlook on the future of truth and justice.

  • Re:Go JPL (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ravenshrike (808508) on Sunday September 26, 2010 @10:09AM (#33703344)

    Item 1, the housing bubble actually started before the dot-com bubble was even a dream, and merely accelerated exponentially during the late '90s and 00's. Item 2, when the dot-com bubble crashed, everybody who made it out with assets looked to put those assets into something. Real estate was very, very hot. Item 3, the infusion of dot-com money along with the tricks that were originally introduced to mitigate the pain of lawsuit avoiding but with high risk of default loans caused the bubble to inflate extremely quickly. Item 4, Bush tried to partially lance the bubble(It wouldn't have completely worked, although the actual crash may have been a bit softer) on at least 2 separate occasions, but was shouted down by the Dem peanut gallery, and Barney Frank in particular. Moreover, Bush didn't consider it important enough to expend significant political capital on, an obvious mistake on his part.

  • Re:Go JPL (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Kjella (173770) on Sunday September 26, 2010 @11:07AM (#33703664) Homepage

    That's politics for you, on this point they make used car salesmen look like saints. Nothing like passing the reins to the other side with the closet stacked with skeletons that'll come tumbling out and pretty much all be blamed on the acting president/congress. There's an expression "don't shoot the messenger", sometimes even the president is just the messenger telling you what mess he took over. And in politics, we do shoot the messenger.

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