Science and Exploration

Why Has NASA Banned Access to its Partner Saudi Arabia?

By Keith Cowing
March 25, 2013
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Why Has NASA Banned Access to its Partner Saudi Arabia?
NASA Denies Access To Saudi Arabia

Last week NASA Administrator Bolden announced that access to NASA computer networks and facilities would be curtailed for citizens of various countries. Among the countries listed was Saudi Arabia.  It is more than a little unusual to see Saudi Arabia targeted like this given the strong relations between the Saudis and the U.S. in a wide range of scientific and technological fields. It is even more odd that NASA would publicly snub a major U.S. ally in the Middle East in the midst of a presidential trip to the region.
In hearings before Rep. Wolf’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies on 20 March 2013 (video), Charlie Bolden announced that as a result of recent events related to alleged Chinese infiltration of NASA networks and facilities, that offsite computer access to some foreign nationals would be limited. The countries mentioned by Bolden were: China, Burma, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. In addition, Bolden announced that onsite access to NASA facilities was also being limited or curtailed for citizens of these countries.

[Hearing Video 00:13:45] Bolden: “I have ordered a moratorium on granting any new access to NASA facilities to individuals from specific designated countries. Specifically: China, Burma, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. While this review is on going I have also ordered that any remote computer access to NASA resources be terminated for those from the same specific designated countries.”

Note: no mention of these restrictions is made in Bolden’s prepared statement for this hearing. All such prepared testimony is routinely reviewed by the White House in advance of its delivery to Congress – so it is not clear if the White House knew in advance that this would be discussed. As of the date of the publication of this article, NASA has not placed this prepared testimony online however it is online at the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies. Nor has NASA issued a public statement that lists these countries and restrictions place on their citizens.

Bolden told Wolf that there are 281 foreign nationals with access to NASA facilities of which are 192 are Chinese nationals. That leaves 89 individuals coming from other nations.  The thrust of these hearings was access by foreign nationals to sensitive information generated or possessed by NASA. Given that these new access restrictions are focused on information security, you’d expect that the nations who are the biggest problems would be listed.

Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan are not listed on the State Department’s Country Policies and Embargoes web page which deals with International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) restrictions. However they are listed as Countries of Particular Concern at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. A press release from Rep. Wolf’s office in 2012 refers to “Countries of Particular Concern” and specifically lists “Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan”. Frank Wolf has taken considerable interest in religious and human rights issues over the years, so it is not surprising that he’d be familiar with that list.

But the issue at hand was security regarding technical information – not human rights or religion. To be certain, China, Iran, and North Korea are bad actors when it comes to transfer of sensitive information, human rights, etc. But it is rather hard to find instances where citizens of Burma, Eritrea, Sudan, Uzbekistan or Saudi Arabia have been accused of hacking into NASA computers or stealing sensitive information. So why does the list of nationalities banned from NASA by Bolden look more like a list of counties associated with human rights and religious discrimination than a list of countries known to seek out U.S. technology? Who gave who gave Bolden this list of countries to ban? Did he think it up himself or did Rep. Wolf give it to him?

The odd inclusion of Saudi Arabia on this list really sticks out. According to the U.S. State Department on 4 March 2013: “The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is critical to both of our countries,” [Secretary of State John] Kerry said after meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 4. “We’re working side by side to combat violent extremism, to promote more robust trade and to strengthen ties between the American and the Saudi people,” Kerry said. The secretary said the 70,000 Saudi students in the United States form a vital connection between the two countries.”

Whenever you hear U.S. government officials referring to Saudi Arabia, words such as ‘friend’, ‘ally’, ‘partner’ etc. are mentioned. Given the ‘Arab Spring’, provocations by Iran, and unrest in Syria, the ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia seem to only grow stronger with time. Instead, Charlie Bolden and Frank Wolf seem to be engaging in some ad hoc foreign policy and imposing de facto technology interchange sanctions on Saudi nationals.

Right now there is a contingent of NASA JPL employees in Saudi Arabia discussing space-related issues. The outgoing president of the California Institute of Technology (home of NASA JPL) Jean-Lou Chameau, is the new president of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Last Fall, the Association of Space Explorers was invited to hold its annual meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia with most of the expenses paid for by the King. The event was held at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). Among the participants was current JPL Center Director Charles Elachi and former Johnson Space Center Director George Abbey. Scott Kelly, the astronaut who will spend a year aboard the International Space Station was there representing NASA. More than a dozen current and former NASA astronauts were also present.

As you will recall, in 2010, Charlie Bolden made a second trip to the Middle East. While in Saudi Arabia, Gulf News reported that “The King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) has signed two agreements with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa). The deals signed on the sidelines of the Saudi International Space and Aeronautics Technology Conference that began in Riyadh on Saturday are for extended scientific cooperation and exchange of research between them. They also signed a letter of intent in the space and aeronautics area. A large number of international space scientists are participating in the space science conference.”

Of course, it was during an earlier trip to the Middle East, in July 2010, that Bolden’s so-called ‘Muslim Outreach’ faux paux occurred. Bolden told Al Jazeera:

“I am here in the region – its sort of the first anniversary of President Barack Obama’s visit to Cairo – and his speech there when he gave what has now become known as Obama’s “Cairo Initiative” where he announced that he wanted this to become a new beginning of the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. When I became the NASA Administrator – before I became the NASA Administrator – he charged me with three things: One was that he wanted me to re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, that he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with predominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.”

This mission creep and freelancing on Bolden’s part got him into hot water at the White House. Shortly after Bolden was on Al Jezeera, this interchange happened in the White House Press room:

“Q: I wanted to ask you, there are some comments that the NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden, made a couple weeks back that drew some interest, specifically from conservatives who are wondering why we he said that one of the charges that the President gave him when he got the job was that he had to focus on outreach to the Muslim world. Why is the NASA Administrator doing that?

MR. GIBBS: That’s an excellent question, and I don’t think — that was not his task, and that’s not the task of NASA.”

Clearly Mr. Bolden overstepped his authority on his first trip but made up for it on his second trip. The initial agreements that were signed between NASA and Saudi Arabia are now being implemented. As such, it would seem that formal Administration policy has been focused in the direction of strengthening and expanding science and technology ties between NASA and Saudi Arabia. Denying access to NASA information and facilities to Saudi nationals is not in adherence with the overall thrust of U.S. policy to Saudi Arabia certainly not vis a vis agreements in place with NASA. Indeed it is a giant step backward. Why now?

It will be rather awkward for the former Caltech president, now in the same position at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, to have to explain to his Saudi staff and students why JPL (located at Caltech) won’t let them have access any more.

This strange turn of events begs some clarification from NASA. It is important to know who made the decision to bar Saudi access to NASA. Did Rep. Wolf specifically ask Bolden to do this? Did Bolden decide to include Saudi Arabia? Did Bolden run this by the White House and State Department first? Or is Bolden freelancing again? Its rather odd to see a presidential appointee snubbing one of our strongest allies in the Middle East during the midst of a Presidential visit – to the Middle East. Indeed, it is upstaging behavior like this that can cause presidential appointees to be job hunting. Stay tuned.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.