Bolden Reassures Wolf on China, Talks Budget Realities

Bolden Reassures Wolf on China, Talks Budget Realities

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden outlined actions he is taking in response to concerns highlighted by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) on access to NASA facilities and information by Chinese nationals.   Bolden testified at a hearing chaired by Wolf this afternoon.

Wolf has called NASA officials to task for allowing Chinese nationals access to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA and Langley Research Center (LaRC) in Hampton, VA particularly.  Wolf chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and announced earlier this week the arrest of a Chinese national who worked for an LaRC contractor.  

Bolden emotionally responded that he takes his responsibility to protect sensitive information very seriously. “This is about national security, not NASA security, and I take that personally,” he said.   Bolden is a retired Marine Major General and subcommittee ranking member Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) spent some time laying out Bolden’s military career to underscore his service and dedication to the nation.

Wolf is an unrelenting critic of the Chinese government and said today that five NASA employees had come to him with concerns about Chinese access to Ames and LaRC because they were afraid to talk to their NASA supervisors.  Bolden said he was was “bothered” about the effectiveness of his leadership if even five of his 18,000 NASA employees “don’t trust me.”   Wolf replied “I would trust you.”

On March 7, Wolf issued a seven step “remediation plan” for NASA to address what he called “systemic security issues.”  Although he is laser-focused on China, he also has raised concerns about access by nationals from the State Department’s other seven “countries of particular concern”  — Burma, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

Bolden publicly responded to those steps today.   Among the actions he is taking is a review of access that nationals from those countries have to NASA facilities led by Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, which is in addition to a review by the NASA Inspector General (IG).   Once those reports are completed, Bolden said he would consider requesting an independent review by an outside group, as recommended by Wolf.  Bolden also said he had closed the NASA technical reports database until the agency could determine if export-controlled documents are included in it, created a moratorium on any new access to NASA facilities by nationals from the countries of concern, ordered that remote access to NASA computers by people from those countries be terminated while under review, and is reemphasizing to supervisors the need to strictly adhere to export control regulations.

Wolf seemed satisfied with Bolden’s response in general, but pressed him on the issue of having an independent, outside review.   Wolf recommended previously that an organization like the National Academy of Public Administration would be an appropriate body to conduct an independent review and suggested it be chaired by someone like former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.   Bolden replied that he did not want to make that commitment until his own review and the NASA IG’s review are completed, but that he is likely to do that.

Wolf had harsh words for NASA’s IG, Paul Martin, today, as he did last week at a hearing where Martin testified. He feels the IG office failed in its duty to investigate access by Chinese nationals to NASA facilities.

The hearing also exposed a difference in interpretation of language included in NASA’s appropriations act that sharply restricts NASA’s interactions with China.   Bolden said his understanding was that it prohibited bilateral, but not multilateral, meetings with Chinese space program officials.  Wolf was irritated earlier this month upon learning that China would participate in a meeting of the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) chaired by NASA at LaRC.  Bolden said he would have his staff work with Wolf’s to clarify the matter.

China issues were in the forefront at the hearing today, but other topics were also addressed.  Ordinarily, this would be a hearing where NASA and the subcommittee discussed the budget request for the upcoming fiscal year, but the Obama Administration has not yet submitted that request.   At the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium in Greenbelt, MD this morning, Bolden was asked “what can you say about the budget” and he joked “I’d like to have one.”

Without a request for FY2014, the hearing more generally discussed NASA’s ongoing programs and the interests of particular subcommittee members.  Bolden passionately defended the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) after Wolf commented that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report praising improvement in NASA’s program management except for that program.   Bolden insisted that NASA now has that program well in hand.   When Wolf said that it would be extremely difficult to cancel the program at this point, Bolden disagreed and said that if some major unanticipated technical problem was discovered, the agency would have to reassess the program.  “Nothing is too big to fail,” Bolden asserted. 

As for NASA priorities, Bolden stressed that Congress and the Administration already agreed on NASA’s top three priorities:  JWST, the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit, and the International Space Station (ISS) augmented by commercial cargo and commercial crew.   He insisted that the agency will not take money from “the big three” to deal with budget constraints, but all bets are off if sequestration remains in effect for the next 10 years (as current law requires):  “What could affect them is sequestration. Ten years of that … could have devastating effects on all our programs.”


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