Congressional probe could delve into foreign hacker, theft of NASA documents on U.S. ballistic missile technology

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Leaders of Senate and House subcommittees overseeing NASA are preparing for investigative hearings into charges that the inspector general of the space agency abused his authority and was too chummy with officials he was hired to scrutinize, according to a letter from three lawmakers.

Plans for possible hearings are disclosed in a letter sent late yesterday to the administration by the three members of Congress, who were writing in response to a recent White House statement that the administration has no plans to remove NASA’s inspector general, Robert Cobb.

On Monday, these lawmakers received a report on Cobb’s conduct from the president’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency, which has been investigating complaints against Cobb dating back several years. The report paints a picture of an official who abused his office and failed to report a major security breach.

In response, the lawmakers on Monday called for Cobb’s removal. But on Tuesday it was reported the president had confidence in a corrective action plan for the inspector general that didn’t include removal but focused instead on management training.

“We respectfully disagree,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Reps. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and Brad Miller, D-N.C., said in their April 3 letter to a top administration official. “As a result, we are preparing for possible hearings to investigate Mr. Cobb’s conduct as inspector general.”

As a first step, the lawmakers have requested records containing the names of possible witnesses for their subcommittees: the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Aeronautics and Related Matters, headed by Nelson; and, the House Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, headed by Miller.

Cobb first came under scrutiny after multiple complaints in 2005 to Nelson, a former space shuttle crew member, who forwarded the complaints to the president’s integrity committee.

In essence, the complaints alleged Cobb was abusive to people working in his 200-person office and failed to investigate safety and security violations.

In one instance, Cobb allegedly tried to avoid an embarrassing public disclosure of the theft of an estimated $1.9 billion worth of data from NASA computers. The integrity committee found Cobb didn’t report the loss in a timely manner to the State Department, as is required when there are national security implications.

And that’s a major issue, according to Nelson, because it indicates a lack of independence on Cobb’s part.

NASA sources have told Nelson’s office that the theft of information on the so-called COBRA rocket engine project could give a competing country an advantage.

The data was downloaded from a server at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., in 2002, and the information turned up in the hands of a hacker in Latin America and a reporter for a computer magazine, and an Internet address in France.

“This information could definitely assist the Chinese with improving their rocket engines for both intercontinental ballistic missiles and commercial launch vehicles,” according to a Pentagon assessment of possible damage from the theft that’s included in the integrity committee’s report.

Attached is the letter signed late yesterday by Nelson, Gordon and Miller.