I have quite a bit to say about the lead story this week. Let’s start with the story, from the 23 November 2014 issue:
Another Kind of Red Scare
In a move reminiscent of McCarthy-era red scares, agents from NASA’s Office of Protective Services demanded that some employees of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory sign loyalty oaths. Concept development design engineer Cate Heneghan, who has been a JPL employee for 26 years, was threatened with denial of “access” to the lab’s security perimeter — which means she would not be able to do her job — unless she answered questions like “Do you have 100 percent allegiance to the United States?” because she is a dual citizen: Heneghan was born and raised in the U.S., but is also a citizen of Ireland. Other dual citizens at JPL were also targeted, but most were “too frightened to resist” the intrusive questions, which are only appropriate for those with security clearances. JPL management got two of the questions dropped, but Heneghan and others were forced to answer the rest or lose their jobs. When a local congresswoman stepped in, NASA admitted the questions “were not agency approved,” and the OPS agents used “inadequate or misapplied training” in their questioning. “I find this whole thing embarrassing for our country,” Heneghan concluded. (RC/Pasadena Weekly) …And she doesn’t mean Ireland.
Full Disclosure: I know JPL’s Cate Heneghan from my own time working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When she was hired, they happened to drop her in the office next to mine, and while we’re not close, we’ve stayed in contact over the years. Rather than a fiery Irish lass (though she is a redhead — hence my “red scare” slug on the story), she’s a smart, thoughtful, and capable professional who knows her job and does it well.
Some might have the knee-jerk reaction of “Well of course we want people paid with tax money to have 100 percent allegiance to the United States!” — but that’s not thinking it through. Politicians, especially, like to refer to “God, family, country” — in that order. (Sarah Palin, for instance, when announcing she was not going to seek nomination for President in 2012 noted, “As always, my family comes first…. When we serve, we devote ourselves to God, family and country. My decision maintains this order.”) So those claiming “100 percent allegiance to the United States” have zero allegiance to their faith, and zero allegiance to their family. That’s the ideal? Few would think so.
And really, what the heck does that mean, anyway? Would an actual embedded terrorist have any problem with saying “yes” to such a question? It’s the thoughtful, real, complex people we want in tough jobs that would stop and say “Wait a minute, here….” when asked such a stupid question.
Cate herself put it this way, in reply when I sent her a note to tell her that I had seen the newspaper article, and it was going to be the lead story in this week’s True (she seems to have had to explain this to others):
You’re driving home late on a Saturday night after a long day at work. You come across a DUI checkpoint. You give the officer your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. He verifies you are who you say you are and your paperwork is in order. He asks if you’ve been drinking; you say no. He notes that your behavior and the visual clues indicate you are not impaired. Your pupils respond appropriately to his flashlight. He does not smell or see any substances of concern in your car.
As he’s returning your paperwork, he requests to see your credit card. You are perplexed and ask him to confirm the request. He assures you that it’s standard procedure to check credit cards at DUI checkpoints. You know this is not right for several reasons: common sense tells you that credit card info is not necessary to ascertain whether someone is impaired; your friends have told you about their experiences at DUI checkpoints and credit card info was never involved; and you just read about DUI checkpoints in your state’s Vehicle Code, which says that once an officer is assured a driver is not impaired, he must let the driver go and not hold up traffic.
You ask him to show you the portion of the vehicle code that permits his request. He assures you his request is legitimate and reminds you that you must cooperate with officers at DUI checkpoints. You ask to speak to his supervisor. He explains that refusing to cooperate at a DUI checkpoint is a jailable offense. His supervisor walks over and agrees with him.
You now have a decision to make. If you refuse, they can haul you off to jail. You know all this will be dismissed when a judge sees it. (But you wonder if the cop and his supervisor will trump up the story about the evening.) You’ll spend the night in jail before anyone can bail you out. Your car will be towed and impounded, and you will have to pay for both. Since it is Saturday night, you won’t get your car back until Monday. To top it all off, you’ll have an arrest on your pristine record, which can cause problems when trying to get jobs in the future.
Or, you can just give him your credit card and be on your way.
What do you do?
You can use fill-in-the-blank other info instead of a credit card if you like. Example: a request to open the trunk and search without a warrant. You can say no, but he can say you were resisting an officer at a DUI checkpoint…
Indeed: what would you do in this police state environment? For Cate and the other employees, it wasn’t the inconvenience of having to go before a judge and get it thrown out in a heartbeat: it was losing her career and then having to hire a lawyer to fight to get it back. What would that cost?
So, what sort of other questions were the government agents asking? “If needed, would you renounce your citizenship with Ireland?” “Do you carry an Irish passport? What’s the number?” “Do you travel on this passport?” “Do you plan on renewing this passport?” and “Do you have financial interests or property in Ireland?” As if any of these things were crimes, or even indicated someone could be, maybe, a terrorist? The questions are outrageous in a free country. All along, Cate had questions of her own: what is your authority for asking such questions? What are the ramifications for answering yes or no to whether she would renounce her citizenship with Ireland “if needed”? And under what circumstances would it legitimately be “needed” to do so? It’s terrifying to be questioned in such a way: no wonder most of her co-workers were afraid to complain. (Only one other went public: a senior research scientist who has dual citizenship with France.)
Why does Cate, then, have such guts? Let me tell you about her father, John. First, he was born in the Bronx, which tends to make a guy pretty tough. He joined the U.S. Navy for World War II. In 1964, he was working for the Navy as an equal employment opportunity contract compliance officer in the U.S. South — Georgia and Mississippi. Yeah: a job like that in 1964 was hard. “It was sort of tense,” said Mr. Heneghan’s co-worker, Gene Heller. “Word quickly got out within the establishment that we were doing investigations and compliance reviews for the government…. We used our rearview mirror quite a bit.”
Cate was born during this time, in Atlanta, during those civil rights struggles. Later, Mr. Heneghan was Director of the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Commerce’s Maritime Administration in Washington, D.C. He pushed shipyards to offer employment and training to women and minorities. He had leverage: when the contract to build the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower was ready to be awarded, Mr. Heneghan wouldn’t award it until the contractor cleaned up its act. The company’s equal opportunity record was “as close as one could come in those days to separate but not yet equal,” Mr. Heller said. With this sort of pressure under Mr. Heneghan’s watch, the shipyard employment of women in traditionally male-dominated jobs went from 0.2 percent to 5.4 percent in just 10 years — and the employment of skilled black workers went from 14.6 percent to 25.6 percent.
Mr. Heneghan retired from the Navy Reserve in 1978, as a Commander; he died in 2007, at 79. That’s the man who raised Cate, so I’m not at all surprised that she’s tough too. (And she’ll be surprised I know about any of this, since she never told me. I’m a good researcher!) And now, slimy guys in suits carrying badges dare to question his daughter’s loyalty to the United States? Because she identifies with her Irish heritage?! Cate said it best: “I find this whole thing embarrassing for our country.” I agree — and neither one of us means Ireland.
What Is Reasonable, Then?
NASA’s facilities are terrorist targets, and they need to be protected. The agents were acting under the authority of “HSPD-12” — Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 — issued by President Bush after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Under this directive, every federal employee or contractor who has ongoing access to federally controlled facilities and/or information systems must be issued a PIV (Personal Identity Verification) smartcard (aka, access badge), and to get that they have to go through a basic background check.
The purpose of that background check, according to the Credentialing, Suitability, and Security Clearance Decision-Making Guide used by NASA investigators (the government term is actually “adjudicators”), is to determine “whether or not an individual is eligible for long-term access” — or not. Not whether they are qualified for the job (there are “no acceptable criteria” for agents to evaluate an employee’s “misconduct or negligence in employment), not whether they are straight (there are “no acceptable criteria” for agents to evaluate an employee’s ”sexual behavior”) — but a card “will not be issued to a person if the individual is known to be or reasonably suspected of being a terrorist.” Whew! At least there’s that.
There are no justifications included which allow agents to ask about dual citizens with friendly allies whether they have a passport from that country, or intend to renew it.
NASA’s Office of Protective Services threw the agents under the bus, claiming they didn’t have proper training. But what of the others who knew what they had been doing? Cate brought the questions to the attention of the NASA Inspector General, and the threats from the agents “continued even after we pointed out to higher levels of JPL and NASA management the errant behavior of the [NASA Management Office] adjudicators,” she told the reporter. “I was even found to be noncompliant for initially not answering the non-agency approved questions. I had to hire a lawyer to respond to this false claim of noncompliance. What other violations have been committed by NASA adjudicators and by the entire Office of Protective Services? How far up the NASA management structure does all this go? This was not the action of only one rogue employee. He did this with the full knowledge of his management at JPL as well as the JPL Director and Caltech* [general counsel]. The NASA [Inspector General] was also made aware of the overreaching questions, but did not act on the information. Who polices adjudicators to be sure they aren’t breaking policies or laws? How many others of the 5,000 JPL employees and 2,000 contractors have been subjected to unauthorized questioning? How will NASA disposition all the information they collected without authorization?”
Good questions all. And if these abusers of process aren’t slapped down, it will happen again.
– – –
*Caltech — the California Institute of Technology — operates JPL under contract for NASA, in part because JPL was initially created by Caltech students doing rocket experiments in the rural arroyo where the Lab is now located.
- A Question of Loyalty, Pasadena Weekly, November 20, 2014
- John Heneghan Obituary, Washington Post, October 4, 2007
- - -
This page is an example of This is True’s style of “Thought-Provoking Entertainment”. “True” is a newsletter that uses “weird news” as a vehicle to explore the human condition, and bring up questions about society — in an entertaining way. If you enjoyed this page, consider scrolling up to the top of the page for a free e-mail subscription.
To really support True, sign up for a paid subscription to the much-expanded “Premium” edition:
Q: Why would I want to pay more than the regular rate?
A: To support the publication to help it thrive and stay online, and this kind of support means less future need for price increases (and smaller increases when they do happen), which enables more people to upgrade. This option was requested by existing Premium subscribers.