NASA, national security, and Africa

More of a grab bag today, but some interesting things are going on.

First, the supreme court is in session (some people care about football season, others care about supreme court season) and one of the cases it’s hearing is NASA v. Nelson. The briefs submitted by both sides are here, and they’re surprisingly accessible, except of course when they talk about what the law actually is. It’s also hard to get a good idea of what’s going on since lawyers for both sides make it sound like their case is great.

Basically, a bunch of Caltech dorks (I use that term with affection, but seriously, the actual BRIEF says that the work these people do requires nothing more than “a computer, a pen, a piece of paper, and a calculator” who work at a NASA jet propulsion lab got upset because they were asked a bunch of sex and drug questions.

Now there are points on both sides. These employees don’t deal with any sensitive information and have been working at this lab for 20 years, but the government points out that background checks are required for all federal employees (I think an exec order in 2005 passed by Bush is what made the check required for these guys who are, I guess, quasi-federal employees) and that their responses are voluntary, not disseminated publicly, and protected by the privacy act. Like I said, I’m still learning about this case, but it seems like a pretty solid victory for the government, but interestingly, the whole things probably resulted from security tightening done under Bush.

Is this an example of how national security laws overreacted and so swept within their net some wholesome jet propulsion scientists, or is this case about a narrowly tailored government policy designed with an important government purpose in mind?

Also, the 9th circuit ruled in favor of the scientists and ruled pretty decisively that direction as well. I’m interested to see how this case shapes up. Of course there probably won’t be much written about it until the decision is rendered far in the future.

Anyway, I also saw this interesting report that says that though Africa as a continent is moving toward a better economy, its political indicators have fallen. More Africans are now living under threat of violence or are politically disenfranchised. Really? It’s worse now than in the past? Damn things must be really bad. I didn’t know things could even get worse in Africa.


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