New Media Security Policy at NASA Headquarters: More Confusion, Less Security

By Keith Cowing
September 27, 2006
Filed under
New Media Security Policy at NASA Headquarters: More Confusion, Less Security

NASA issued a press release yesterday, which spelled out its latest security regulations as they apply to the news media. As is often typical of the folks at NASA headquarters, no one apparently expended much brainpower in thinking this through in terms of the logic of the change in policy – and ramifications thereof. Moreover, no one (apparently) bothered to check and see if there was any consistency in how people were already being treated in terms of identifying them and tracking their activities while inside NASA Headquarters – and how these new rules meshed with those already in place.

The net result is an uneven policy with regard to public access to NASA Headquarters whereby news media have to undergo a full FBI background check, and be escorted wherever they go, yet people attending advisory committee meetings simply walk in off the street, show a photo ID, get a visitor’s badge and go wherever they wish to go.

This is the press release NASA issued on 26 September 2006:


Effective Oct. 1, 2006, all news media entering the access controlled area of the NASA headquarters building in Washington must be escorted.

News media accredited by the Office of Public Affairs and issued a media badge do not need to sign in at the visitor’s desk, but they do need to arrange an escort from the Office of Public Affairs. Non-accredited media will be badged as visitors and escorted.

News media will be escorted to their business appointments by a NASA public affairs employee. Escorts will not be necessary for news media attending events in the auditorium.

Previously, news media representatives had unlimited access to the NASA headquarters building. This policy change makes the security procedures at headquarters consistent with those of NASA’s field centers.

I sent this email in response to this new policy to senior NASA Headquarters PAO and Security officials. No one has responded.

It is a post 9-11 world and everything needs to be more secure. You will get no argument from me whatsoever on that issue.


1. Why did you make me go through a full FBI check (fingerprints, background check etc.) to get a press badge – a badge, which now means nothing? Other than not signing a piece of paper I still have to call someone up to come and get me and escort me to my appointment, go through the metal detector, etc. I assume that this person will come back to get me when I am done – or does someone else have to escort me out of the building too? How do I arrange for that? What if I want to talk with more than one person?

2. Indeed, what is the point of having the press badge? All it does is make it unnecessary for me to sign my name in a logbook. That takes 15 seconds. Yet how much does it cost the government to screen individual media (FBI etc) so that this one small step is no longer needed? Why not just treat every non-employee the same way and do away with the press badges all together? That is what they do “at the field centers”.

3. If you are worried about me or other media doing something evil, you do know that we can simply show up for FACA meetings, identify ourselves as “general public”, show a picture ID, sign in, get a badge, and wander wherever we want to – with no escort. I see NAC and SSAC non-member attendees do this all the time. No one runs a full FBI scan on these folks – do they?.

4. If you are afraid that we might talk to people you’d rather not have us talk to – I hate to break it to you, but we can talk to them outside of NASA HQ. Indeed, this just serves to make me want to do even more interviews offsite from NASA HQ – away from PAO supervision. But I guess you’d like to see less of me as it is anyway 😉

Having lived in the Greater Washington, DC metro area for 20 years, I am quite accustomed to security at almost every place I visit. In a post-9/11 world, it is clear that we need more security than ever. You will get no argument whatsoever from me. Indeed, in many places, seeing logical security procedures in place makes me feel more secure. What does annoy me, however, is when people impose security requirements that are not thought out ahead of time – with the net result being pointless annoyance for taxpayers like me. Security is not enhanced in such situations.

Recently, I went to get my NASA Headquarters press building pass renewed. You may recall from my posting “HQ Security Fumbles Again” that the quality of thinking and performance at NASA HQ Security is lacking. A reporter for a prominent national publication sent me a recollection of a similar experience. I complained to David Saleeba, head of Security at HQ, but he never had the common courtesy to respond and address my complaints. Nonetheless, I went through this process – as I have annually – to get a pass, which makes it just a little easier to come to NASA HQ and do what I do.

When I was issued this badge I was told that it had nothing to do with being accredited media, rather that it had to do with access to the NASA Headquarters building. Indeed, when I visit other NASA centers, this badge means nothing and I need to obtain formal access to that center according to that center’s policy. No surprise there. No complaints either.

But access is not evenly provided to people. There are many flavors of badged access to NASA for non-civil servants. Former NASA employees regularly walk into NASA HQ and flash their old HQ badge – even though they are no longer civil servants. For some reason, as a former NASA civil servant myself, I have never been able to obtain one of these badges. Other people who have retired from NASA get badges that allow them to walk in unfettered as well. Other individuals, representing contractors, show up and flash a building pass (or an old NASA badge) and walk right in even though they do not work for NASA Headquarters or have an office in that building, but rather represent companies who do business with NASA. And then there are people who have a contract for NASA but use the badge to enter for purposes other than their contract.

Then, of course, there are the people who come to NASA Headquarters for NASA Advisory Council meetings and other advisory meetings who are issued a visitor’s badge and then are free to go wherever they please. No one ever bothers to stop and ask them what they are doing or where they are going.

NASA Headquarters security operations have always been like this i.e. uneven and inconsistent – and in many cases, illogical. I have seen all of this with my own eyes. It would be a simple matter for me to name names. You just have to go to HQ and recognize the faces of people as they walk through security. But that is not the point I wish to make.

So, is there a point to this rant, Keith?

When this HQ press badge was issued to members of the media it conferred a level of trust that went with access the NASA Headquarters building – as is the case with other people who have access. In exchange for that trust, the holder of the badge was asked to provide personal information and undergo a formal FBI security screening and background check. With this change in PAO building access policy, this badge now confers no discernible difference in access status than is afforded a taxpayer walking in off of the street. The HQ press badge apparently now serves one purpose: to allow new PAO employees to pick out media from everyone else.

As such, NASA should delete all of the personal information from its files collected for the purpose of issuing this badge and assure media that this has in fact been done by giving them the files they once maintained. There should be no reason whatsoever for NASA to continue to maintain such files. Keeping this sort of personal information about reporters would mean that NASA has now adopted a de facto policy of seeking and maintaining detailed background information on taxpayers simply because they are journalists. There is something very, very wrong with that.

By all means NASA should treat me as they would any other taxpayer wishing to enter a government building. But if there is no special access being provided to that building then NASA should not have special access to my personal information and they need to give it back to me.

NASA Security fumbles again, earlier post

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