Over the past eight months, Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Cate Heneghan said she has been dealing with what she considers to be an abuse of authority by NASA, which has been trying to force her to sign what amounts to a loyalty oath — asking intrusive questions about her allegiance to the United States.
Heneghan, who was born and raised in Bethesda, Md., studied at New Mexico State and USC and has dual citizenship with Ireland, argues that the questions do not conform to NASA guidelines.
“How is it JPL is implementing these questions beyond the adjudicative standard, which is required in HSPD-12?” asked Heneghan, who does concept development design for NASA missions and has been at JPL for 26 years. “No one can answer that question.”
HSPD-12, or Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, was issued by President Bush in 2004 and implemented a common identification standard for federal employees and contractors. When it was implemented at JPL and applied to all employees, including contractors and those working on non-classified projects, a number of scientists and engineers objected to the invasive background checks required under the directive and filed a federal lawsuit. The suit, brought by longtime JPL scientist Robert Nelson, was ultimately decided in NASA’s favor by the US Supreme Court in 2012.
The 10 questions were issued to Heneghan on March 24 by Jerry Jennings and Shannon Sanchez of the Office of Protective Services, a department of the NASA Management Office, as part of an adjudication process to credential Heneghan’s Personal Identity Verification (PIV) Smart Card. PIV Smart Cards are issued to most JPL employees to gain access to the laboratory. Heneghan says the questions were appropriate for an employee seeking a security clearance, but not for a simple employee badge. The questions included: “Do you have 100 percent allegiance to the United States?” “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?”
Heneghan says that other federal employees who are also dual citizens, including those working for NASA, are not subject to the same questions.
Deborah Williams-Hedges, senior media relations representative for Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA, referred all questions to NASA headquarters, which did not respond to requests for comment.
A few days after receiving the questions, Heneghan said she replied to Jennings and Sanchez that the NASA Office of Personnel Management guidelines indicate the questions are only required for classified work. Sanchez and Jennings threatened noncompliance, revocation of access to JPL and “unfavorable determination” if Heneghan did not answer the questions within a week, according to email correspondence with Heneghan.
Neither Jennings nor Sanchez responded to requests for comment.
Heneghan started talking to other employees who received the same or similar questions. They also expressed concerns about answering the questions, but were too frightened to resist. Heneghan refused to answer the questions on the grounds that they were not justified by any policy. The Office of Protective Services held her in noncompliance and sent her a letter denying her PIV Smart Card, and thus access to her job.
After being approached by Heneghan, the Caltech Office of General Counsel and the NASA Management Office discussed the situation and then decided to drop the two most egregious of the 10 questions: the one about 100 percent allegiance to the US, the other one regarding renouncing her Irish citizenship “if needed.”
On May 1 the Office of Protective Services emailed a new list of questions to Heneghan with two of the original 10 questions redacted and a new response deadline of May 15. The email reiterated that Heneghan’s failure to respond to all questions may adversely affect her access to NASA facilities and systems.
Heneghan and a co-worker who received similar questions, Dr. Josette Bellan, contacted the NASA Inspector General and relayed their concerns to the NASA Whistleblower Protection Ombudsman. Bellan, a senior research scientist who has dual citizenship with France, was also offended by the allegiance questions.
“I am totally amazed that someone in the [NASA Management Office] was able to come up with these incredibly offensive questions for absolutely no reason whatsoever,” said Bellan.
The Inspector General’s Office did not reply with a solution before the deadline, so Heneghan and Bellan answered the eight questions under duress of noncompliance. The ombudsman, Frank LaRocca, who serves as counsel to the Inspector General, did not reply to requests for information, though the Inspector General’s Office met with Heneghan on Tuesday and told her they would be looking into her concerns.
On May 29, Heneghan received a letter from John O’Malley, the NASA Management Office’s adjudication appeals officer, which read: “Your responses to a supplemental security questionnaire regarding your possession, use and renewal of your (Irish passport) were factors in a ‘favorable’ ruling of your appeal. The ‘no’ responses to use and renew your (Irish passport) in the future were key to this determination. Failure to adhere to this agreement may adversely affect your future access eligibility to JPL or other federal facilities and could result in the revocation of your NASA-issued PIV credential.”
“I never made any agreement, I simply answered their questions,” said Heneghan. “The question was, ‘Do you plan to renew your passport?’ I can honestly say I currently do not have plans to renew my Irish passport, but I certainly never made any agreement saying that I will not renew my Irish passport.”
Heneghan emailed O’Malley, copying management staff at JPL, the NASA Inspector General and Caltech’s Office of General Counsel, asking for a copy of the adjudicative standards that were being used, because she said they diverged from personnel guidelines. She did not receive a response.
Heneghan and Bellan then went to Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-Pasadena), who sent a letter on their behalf to NASA on Aug. 5 asking for an explanation and a review of the case.
On Sept. 12, NASA sent a response letter to Chu written by L. Seth Statler, associate administrator of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs for NASA, which read: “After an investigation into the facts at hand, OPS determined that the dual citizenship questions asked of Ms. Heneghan and Ms. Bellan were not agency approved, given the type of position that both employees occupy, as well as the fact that no additional indicators of risk were discovered as part of their routine background checks. Thus, the background investigations for both individuals were favorably adjudicated in accordance with agency policy. During that time, neither Ms. Heneghan nor Ms. Bellan suffered a disruption in access to JPL. Subsequently, OPS officials have determined that inadequate or misapplied training caused higher standards than those required by NASA’s procedural requirements to be applied to the adjudication of these employees’ clearances. To prevent such an error from occurring in the future, the agency is providing additional training to this employee to help reinforce standing agency policies and processes with regard to adjudicative guidelines.”
Heneghan said that while the letter begins to address the rule violation issues that were raised, it does not address the gross mismanagement of the adjudication process at JPL and what she considers to be an abuse of authority by NASA employees.
“The letter misses the mark on many things and misrepresents the story,” said Heneghan. “It doesn’t cover the impact to so many people and the lack of integrity and loss of trust in the process this will have on NASA employees and contractors.”
While, as the letter states, neither Heneghan nor Bellan suffered a disruption in access to JPL, they both endured the threat of loss of access to JPL. And they still have plenty of questions of their own.
“This threat continued even after we pointed out to higher levels of JPL and NASA management the errant behavior of the [NASA Management Office] adjudicators,” said Heneghan. “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?”
Heneghan and Bellan recommend that an objective third party perform a thorough audit of all NASA adjudications at JPL. They also recommend informing all those who provided information to non-agency approved questions that their information was gathered without NASA approval, and destroying that information. They believe all NASA personnel at JPL should be trained on the prime contract between Caltech and NASA, as well as on NASA adjudication policy.
“I think there is something wrong here,” said Bellan. “The [NASA Management Office] action has been acknowledged to be wrong by NASA, but the retraining of one person will not solve this because the action was approved at the highest level. There’s much more to it and many people are afraid to protest because they are being intimidated by the threat of losing their jobs. These kinds of activities undermine the trust we have in the NASA Management Office at JPL and in NASA’s ability to manage the NASA Management Office at JPL.”
“I find this whole thing embarrassing for our country,” said Heneghan.