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Scientists Demand Retraction From Gov't Attorney In NASA Privacy Case

A group of scientists has demandedthat the U.S. AttorneyGeneral's office immediately retract remarks made by a governmentattorney duringarguments before the Supreme Court over privacy concerns with NASAbackgroundchecks.

The scientists said they want theattorney general toretract a statement made by acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal duringhisopening statement, which at one point addressed how easily employees atNASA'sJet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., could access sensitiveareas andfacilities using a new security badge.

The case, Nelsonet al. v. NASA et al., concerns whether the space agency canconductintensive employee background checks without violating constitutionalprivacyrights. Scientists working as government contractors at JPL filed thelawsuitin 2007.

Lead plaintiff and JPL scientistRobert Nelson wrote lettersto Attorney General Eric Holder and NASA Administrator Charles Boldenon Oct. 7requesting that Holder order a retraction of the remarks and issue apubliccorrection, according to a statement released by Nelson. 

According to the scientists, Katyalsaid: "And the even moreimportant point about this is the badgethat the plaintiffs are seeking access to don?t ? doesn?t just givethem accessto JPL. It will also give them other access to all other NASAfacilities. Andit?s such an important credential that it would allow them to getwithin, forexample, 6 to 10 feet of the space shuttle as it is being repaired andreadiedfor launch. So this is a credential not just for JPL and getting ontoJPL, butother places as well."

ButJPL badges do notprovide such broad access, the scientists responded. NASA's JetPropulsionLaboratory is managed for the space agency by the CaliforniaInstitute ofTechnology in Pasadena.

The security credential in use at JPLallows entry to otherNASA facilities, but only to nonsensitive areas, they said. JPLemployees couldnot access the space shuttle or any other "flight hardware" withoutthe proper training and authorization no matter what badge theycarried, theyadded.

"Katyal?s remarks reflect the JusticeDepartment?sastounding ignorance of basic NASA rules and procedures," Nelson saidinremarks he was to deliver at the 42nd meeting of the Division forPlanetarySciences of the American Astronomical Society in Pasadena yesterday(Oct. 7). "Thisignorance has been demonstrated by the DOJ throughout the case. It isregrettable that the Supreme Court will decide an important case likethis onewith false information in hand.?

TheJPL scientists sued NASA in 2007, challenging the agency's backgroundchecks as illegaland unjustified violations oftheir privacy. On Oct. 3, 2007, the federal District Court in LosAngelesdismissed the suit.

Twodays later, the U.S. 9thCircuit Court of Appeals agreed with the scientists and issued anemergencyinjunction that stopped the checks.

The federal government appealed,and the SupremeCourt agreed to hear the case. A decision is expected earlynext year.

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