NASA Security Examined at House Science Committee Hearing

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Publication date: 
2 July 2014
Number: 
117

“These reports confirm our worst fears: that the incidents at Langley and Ames are not isolated incidences” said Space Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) at a hearing on security procedures at NASA’s centers.  Among the findings of these reports investigating NASA’s security protocols were confusing and sometimes bureaucratic procedures and uneven and uncoordinated application of these procedures to protect the agency’s sensitive information.  Importantly, the investigations did not reveal intentional disregard of security protocols.

Two events at NASA’s centers have received the attention of Congress.  In February 2014, NASA’s Inspector General released a three-page Investigative Summary of a report in response to “complaints that foreign nationals working as contractors at NASA’s Ames Research Center. . . had been given improper access to information subject to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which control the transfer of military and space-related technology.”   NASA’s Inspector General, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Department of Homeland Security conducted a four-year investigation of this 2009 incident.  No criminal charges were brought.  The summary explains: “In sum, we did not find intentional misconduct by any Ames civil servants but believe some Ames managers exercised poor judgment in their dealings with foreign nationals who worked on Center.”  The summary states: “we uncovered no evidence to support allegations that any foreign nationals at Ames were provided classified information during the period covered by our review.”

A second incident occurred in March 2013 when a NASA Langley Research Center contractor who was a citizen of the People’s Republic of China attempted to take a NASA-issued laptop on his return home.  This individual was stopped at an airport and subsequently detained on the charge of making a false statement to a federal employee.  A misdemeanor plea agreement was entered into, with federal prosecutors acknowledging that “none of the computer media . . . contained classified information, export-controlled information, or NASA proprietary information.”  The FBI is still investigating if sensitive information was passed by this contractor.    The 18-page Investigative Summary issued last fall described a complex and highly bureaucratic procedure that confused many of the employees who often did not coordinate their actions.  The Summary concluded with six multi-part recommendations to improve the process. 

It is against this backdrop that the Subcommittees on Space, and Oversight, held a joint hearing on June 20.  Testifying at this eighty-minute hearing from NASA were Associate Deputy Director Richard Keegan and Deputy Inspector General Gail Robinson.  Belva Martin of the Government Accountability Office and Douglas Webster of the Cambio Consulting Group also testified. 

All the witnesses agreed that NASA must reform and strengthen its procedures to control access to sensitive materials by foreign nationals working at its centers.  Keegan described efforts the agency is taking to “strike the right balance” in protecting sensitive export-controlled technologies and other information while working to share important scientific information.  Robinson described steps NASA is taking to improve information technology security and the management of export control and foreign national access.  She assured the members of the subcommittees that her office would provide “aggressive oversight” of these corrective measures. 

Martin described GAO’s findings of shortcomings throughout the security process and told the subcommittee members that NASA concurs with its reform recommendations.  Webster was a member of a panel that produced a report by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA).  The House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee directed that NAPA conduct an investigation of NASA’s procedures that Webster described in his testimony.  His statement included 27 recommendations to improve Foreign National Access Management.

Subcommittee members were appreciative of the findings and recommendations but criticized NASA on several grounds.  Members were critical of NASA’s refusal to release the full investigatory reports.  NASA has declined to do so because of its concerns that the reports identify security weaknesses that could be exploited.  Despite repeated calls for him to do so, Keegan also declined, because of privacy concerns, to specify how employees have been sanctioned who did not comply with the agency’s security protocols.  Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA) and several of his Republican colleagues were angered by Keegan’s lack of specificity about what actions NASA has taken against these employees.  Democratic Members also expressed great concern about security weaknesses, and highlighted in their statements and questions the cooperation NASA officials exhibited during the investigations and their willingness to implement reform recommendations.  Space Subcommittee Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD) aptly summarized the challenges NASA is facing, stating in her opening comments: “Corrective actions will likely be difficult for the agency to implement.  We will need to be vigilant to ensure that these corrective actions do not destroy NASA’s culture of openness which has proven to be a key ingredient in the agency’s success.   . . . we have worked too hard and invested too many precious taxpayer dollars to let sensitive knowledge slip away as a result of inconsistent implementation of export controls. . . . “