Report: NASA Needs Agency-wide Rules for Foreign Access to Centers

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WASHINGTON ­­— NASA should centralize the patchwork of security procedures and personnel governing foreign access to its U.S. field centers, an independent panel recommended in a report triggered by allegations of security breaches at the centers.

“There is no systematic approach to [foreign national access management] at NASA,” said the report from the National Academy for Public Administration. “[T]he result is a broad range of outcomes, many of which are insufficient.”

The report, “An Independent Review of Foreign National Access Management,” is the result of an investigation NASA requested back in March 2013 after Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) went public with allegations of security breaches involving foreign nationals at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., and Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Wolf is chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that funds NASA.

“NASA is in the process of examining each recommendation and expects to provide a report by early March to the Committees on Appropriations” in the Senate and House, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden wrote in a Feb. 7 letter to Wolf. The congressman’s office released the letter Feb. 12, along with a summary of the report on NASA’s handling of foreign access to its 10 field centers.

The leading recommendation in the summary is that NASA should manage center access by foreign nationals “as a program.” That means crafting a top-level training handbook on policies such as export control and counterintelligence, moving counterintelligence personnel to field centers from NASA headquarters here, and putting the agency’s Office of Protective Services under the direct oversight of NASA’s senior leadership. Currently the headquarters-based office reports to Richard Keegan, associate administrator for NASA’s Mission Support Directorate.

The report summary was dated January 2014. The full report, which included 27 recommendations, was not released publicly due to the sensitivity of its contents, Bolden wrote in his letter to Wolf.

The decision to keep the full report under wraps did not sit well with Wolf, who despite plans to retire in 2015 after 34 years on the Hill continues to press for increased scrutiny of NASA’s interactions with certain foreign governments, particularly China’s.

“Frankly, I was taken aback at the breadth and depth of security challenges identified across NASA and I am deeply disappointed the agency has restricted access to the report,” Wolf said in a Feb. 12 press release. The report, he said, “confirms not only the serious security challenges that need to be addressed, but a persistent organizational culture that fails to hold center leadership, employees and contractors accountable for security violations.”

Wolf’s 2013 allegations, based on anonymous whistle-blower reports, produced no evidence of either spying or violations of export control laws on NASA’s part, although they did result in the arrest of a former NASA contractor, Chinese citizen Bo Jiang.

Jiang, who once worked on imaging technology at Langley, was arrested by the FBI while boarding a flight back to China. Jiang was never charged with spying. Rather, he was jailed for lying to the FBI about the contents of his luggage. Ultimately, Jiang was kicked out of the United States for downloading pornography and pirated movies onto his government-issued laptop.

Prior to Jiang’s arrest, Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center since 2006, came under fire from Wolf and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee. The lawmakers asked then-FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate whistle-blower allegations that the Justice Department had declined to prosecute alleged export control violations at Ames for political reasons.

Worden strenuously denied both that any such violations had taken place and that Ames had obstructed any investigations. Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, denied she ever sought permission from Justice Department headquarters in Washington to proceed with any indictments related to the alleged violations at Ames.

Wolf, whose subcommittee also funds the FBI, is a constant and vocal critic of the Chinese government and has spearheaded legislation that bans the U.S. space agency from bilateral cooperation with China and Chinese industry.

In his Feb. 12 press release, Wolf said his appropriations subcommittee would continue to press Bolden about national security matters in hearing scheduled for March.