When Security Means Silence

My daughter is studying the play “Judgment at Nuremberg” by Abby Mann for English Lit, so for fun we decided to rent the wonderful 1961 movie version and watch it together as a family. The play depicts the trial of four judges who committed crimes under the guise of executing the law under Nazism, the responses of victims, and the interplay between state mandate and personal responsibility. Intercut with actual footage of Nuremberg during that time as well as actual footage of atrocities committed by the regime, and filled with wonderful actors (Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Werner Klemperer, and William Shatner), the play underscores the series of step-by-step legal decisions which ultimately denied justice, steps beginning with loyalty oaths and mandates against associating with inappropriate (labeled by the government) people and leading to the subversion of the entire judicial system in the name of maintaining the fiction of law during a genocidal war. And even though each judge was deemed responsible and “guilty” by the presiding trial judges (2-1, not unanimous), the lead defense attorney indicates that within a short time all those convicted will be released – which they eventually are.

I am struck with how much the lessons in this play, learned at such great cost in WWII, are still relevant today. Bruce Schneier in his latest CryptoGram security bulletin notes that non-classified NASA researchers working at JPL are now suing NASA and CalTech over invasive background checks. According to the Associated Press account of the lawsuit filed, “the Commerce Department and NASA instituted requirements that employees and contractors permit sweeping background checks to qualify for credentials and refusal would mean the loss of their jobs. NASA calls on employees to permit investigators to delve into medical, financial and past employment records, and to question friends and acquaintances about everything from their finances to sex lives, according to the suit. The requirements apply to everyone from janitors to visiting professors.”

I know there are people who will loudly proclaim that those who refuse to sign probably have something to hide. But this isn’t a standard background check – this is a blank check for the government to look at your mammogram results, bug your neighbors, examine your tax returns, follow you on vacation, and generally treat you as a criminal when you have committed no crime and there is no threat of a crime. Would anyone really sign a form that let’s their employer talk to your ex-wife or follow you into the PTA meeting or bar after work? Would you like your doctor asked questions about what you told him in confidence? I sincerely doubt it. It would be really stupid.

One thing about the leading researchers on the Mars rovers, the Galileo probe to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn — they are not stupid. They are well-known world-class scientists being told they must sign away their Constitutional rights (the 4th and 14th Amendment) or lose their jobs. It’s scary. And it’s absolutely suicidal for America’s space program.

Finally, for those pundits who say we don’t need a space program, I suggest they look at the progress China and Russia are making. America has dominated the space exploration biz for over 40 years, and we have reaped the rewards in scientific achievement (which translates into big bucks in the commercial sector over the long run) and prestige (which means we get things our way most of the time). In fact, we’re so used to getting what we want from the world that we actually think we don’t have to work for it. To use a common phrase, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. We can’t afford to kick out our best and brightest because some government bureaucrat wants to break out of the GS-12 dead-end pay level by inventing threats. Because at the end of the day, somebody has to pay for that lunch one way or another. Let’s hope that our lead in space exploration isn’t the price.

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