NASA Spending Panel Chairman Keeps Focus on China

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WASHINGTON — The new chairman of the House subcommittee that funds NASA served notice Feb. 25 that he shares his very vocal predecessor’s concerns about Chinese efforts to siphon sensitive technical information from the civil space agency.

Amid a back-and-forth with NASA Inspector General Paul Martin about China, restrictions on foreign visitors at NASA’s field centers and cybersecurity, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, produced a virtual echo of the retired Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who held the gavel last year.

Culberson, who in the hearing called Wolf “a hero of mine,” pledged to continue the ban on bilateral cooperation between NASA and China that Wolf tacked on to every federal spending bill passed since 2011.

“The Chinese space program is owned lock, stock and barrel by the People’s Liberation Army,” Culberson said. “It’s really important that we keep the Red Chinese out of our space program.”

Wolf’s language forbids NASA from spending appropriated funds on bilateral arrangements with China or Chinese companies, and from hosting Chinese officials or industry heads at agency facilities.

Culberson asked Martin whether NASA has been complying with the prohibitions Wolf “quite correctly” put in place.

“NASA has complied when it had any kind of communication or any travel related to China,” Martin responded.

That included NASA Administrator Charles Bolden’s November visit to China, which although not publicized ahead of time was indeed made known to Congress prior to Bolden’s arrival in the People’s Republic.

Culberson also asked whether NASA was properly controlling access by foreign nationals to technology and data at NASA field centers. That issue came to a head in 2013 after Wolf, citing whistle blower reports from within NASA, raised alarms about security breaches at two of the agency’s field centers.

NASA Langley Research Center
NASA Langley Research Center. Credit: NASA

The allegations of espionage at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and export-control violations at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, were investigated by the Martin’s office, which ultimately found no evidence any such transgressions occurred.

In the Langley case, however, a former NASA contractor from China was deported for storing pirated videos and pornography on a government laptop he illegally took home with him to China.

The furor prompted Bolden to request an independent review of the agency’s security protocols by the National Academy for Public Administration. That group eventually produced 27 recommendations for standardizing NASA’s security procedures.

“I think they [NASA officials] take the recommendations quite seriously,” Martin said before shifting gears to what he sees as a bigger security threat.

“Frankly, I think the larger concern is the penetration of NASA’s IT network and IT security by Chinese, other foreign, and domestic hackers,” Martin said, without any prompting from Culberson.

Martin blamed NASA’s network vulnerability on the agency’s decentralized IT management structure. Fixing the problem, Martin said, would require giving Larry Sweet, NASA’s chief information officer, more control over the agency’s IT budget.

The majority of NASA’s IT spending is nested in budgets for specific programs and missions, Martin said. Most of what remains goes straight to NASA centers, he said.

In other words, Sweet’s office has little real power because it “doesn’t control the checkbook.”

Martin was the only NASA witness during the hearing, which was called not to consider the agency’s budget request — the subcommittee will do that March 5 — but to confer with inspectors general from the three major agencies in the subcommittee’s jurisdiction.

Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), a second-term House member who is new to the Appropriations Committee, asked Todd Zinsor, the Commerce Department IG, whether the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is capable of fending off cyberattacks like the one last fall that disrupted the flow of weather satellite data to the National Weather Service. NOAA, division of the Commerce Department, operates U.S. weather satellites.

“I believe they do, but I think it requires much greater attention and vigilance than has been applied,” Zinsor said.

Turning to a slightly different subject, Culberson asked both Martin and Zinsor whether U.S. weather data has ever been vetted for accuracy. Culberson told the two — both said they never investigated national weather and climate records — he was interested in “making sure we have accurate temperature data,” especially if NOAA and NASA records are are going to be used “to push a carbon tax on us, for example.”