WASHINGTON — NASA Ames Research Center Director Pete Worden fired back Feb. 12 at claims by a pair of Republican lawmakers that political meddling had halted prosecution of alleged export-control violations at his Mountain View, Calif., field center.

“Last week a news story appeared regarding national security and access to Ames by foreign national individuals … The article and the letters [from U.S. lawmakers] mentioned in it are riddled with inaccuracies,” Worden, a retired Air Force brigadier general who has been director of Ames since 2006, wrote in an email sent to all Ames employees.

“I take very seriously our responsibility to safeguard sensitive information, so wanted to let you — Ames employees — know the facts. To the best of our knowledge I am not, nor have I been, the subject of an International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) investigation.”

Worden’s email was a response to Feb. 8 letters from House Science, Space & Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that writes NASA spending bills.

Smith and Wolf sent the letters to FBI Director Robert Mueller and  the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, seeking an investigation into whether “political pressure” prevented the department from prosecuting alleged ITAR violations at Ames.

Copies of the letters, which describe an FBI and NASA Office of the Inspector General investigation that began in 2009 into the possible illegal transfer of ITAR-controlled technologies were also sent to the press.

“It is our understanding that this illegal technology transfer may have involved classified Defense Department weapons system technology to foreign countries, including China, potentially with the tacit or direct approval of the center’s leadership,” Wolf and Smith wrote.

Ames, which has participated in more than 50 international Space Act Agreements since 2007, conducted last year “a successful audit of all 114 projects and programs where there might be ITAR concerns,” Worden wrote in his Feb. 12 email.

Worden said in his center-wide email that he had offered to testify under oath about export control issues at Ames.Worden declined a SpaceNews interview request but issued a statement Feb. 15 restating Ames commitment to safeguarding sensitive information and denying any effort to cover up ITAR violations. “I say this unambiguously – I have not, would not, and could not impede a law enforcement investigation … NASA Ames Research Center fully cooperates with all investigative agencies. If allegations come to light we immediate[ly] turn any accusations over to relevant authorities to investigate. I have spent much of my career developing  defense technology to protect our nation.”

Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for Northern California, denies that office ever sought permission to proceed with indictments related to alleged violations at Ames — permission that Smith and Wolf, citing anonymous sources, said the office did seek, only to be rebuffed by Justice Department headquarters here.

“I am aware of allegations our office sought authority from the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., to bring charges in a particular matter and that our request was denied,” Haag said Feb. 12 in a prepared statement first reported by the Washington Times. “Those allegations are untrue. No such request was made, and no such denial was received.”

Smith and Wolf, in a Feb. 14 statement sent to reporters, said “given that the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California’s statement to the Washington Times conflicts with information we have received from federal law enforcement sources, we hope that the [Department of Justice Inspector General] will take our request seriously.”

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said, “we are aware of and reviewing the letters” from Smith and Wolf. “However, as a matter of longstanding policy, the Justice Department does not comment on whether a particular person or entity might be under investigation.”

Under ITAR, export of military technology — all U.S. spacecraft and their components are still by law considered military technology — is strictly controlled by the State Department. Under ITAR, sharing information about such technology with foreign nationals could be considered an export.

Among the alleged ITAR violations Smith and Wolf mentioned in their letter:

  • A lack of proper information and physical security safeguards at Ames, where a “large number of foreign nationals have been employed over the past six years.”
  • The dissemination by Ames employees at foreign conferences of controlled information, “including to Chinese and other foreign officials.”

According to a former government official, one of the alleged violations involved a foreign national working at Ames  who presented data about the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, spacecraft to an international audience during a public conference in Vienna. The 380-kilogram satellite, which is slated to launch in August aboard an Orbital Sciences Corp. Minotaur 5 rocket, uses a modular common spacecraft bus that features body-fixed solar panels instead of deployable arrays.

Worden, in his Feb. 15 statement to SpaceNews, said that LADEE uses “100 percent commercial technology.”

LADEE’s novel bus was designed and built at Ames. Its propulsion system was supplied by commercial satellite manufacturer Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., according to Ames sources.

“When LADEE was selected for flight, NASA Ames required foreign nationals to obtain export licenses,” Worden wrote.

Smith and Wolf allege in their Feb. 12 letters that “key evidence from the hard drive of one suspect’s computer was corrupted, as were all the backup copies in the government’s possession.” They asked that the Justice Department investigate the government’s handling of the laptop.

Besides ITAR violations, Smith and Wolf also expressed concern about the Justice Department’s handling of the investigation. The congressmen asked the Justice Department to investigate why certain charges and defendants had been dropped from the case after the assistant U.S. attorney managing it was replaced midway through that office’s vetting of the case. According to a congressional source, that personnel change occurred in 2011.

Meanwhile, the statute of limitations on the charges Smith and Wolf are interested in are running out. “[T]he first charge expired on December 15, 2012,” the congressmen wrote in their letter.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.