Thornburgh Report Notes "Tension" Between International Cooperation and Security at NASA

Thornburgh Report Notes "Tension" Between International Cooperation and Security at NASA

The executive summary of a report chaired by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh on security issues at NASA acknowledges the “tension” between NASA’s charter to encourage international cooperation and its requirement to safeguard sensitive and proprietary information.  The report was requested by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who urged NASA to release the complete report.

Wolf chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and has expressed deep concern over the past several years about NASA allowing access to its facilities to foreign nationals, especially those from China.   Last year he urged NASA to commission an independent study from an organization like the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) chaired by someone like Thornburgh to look at NASA’s Foreign National Access Management (FNAM) policies.   NASA complied, using NAPA and Thornburgh to review its FNAM program.  The report was recently provided to Wolf, but with restricted access.

In a statement yesterday, Wolf called on NASA to release the entire report with any necessary redactions to protect national security.  His office released his response to the study via email with several attachments including the executive summary of the Thornburgh report and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s February 7, 2014 letter to Thornburgh responding to the study.  NAPA does not appear to have posted the executive summary on its website yet.

The executive summary notes that “Foreign national participation in NASA programs and projects is an inherent and essential element in NASA operations. … There is a fundamental tension between NASA’s charter to work cooperatively and share information with other nations while simultaneously safeguarding its sensitive and proprietary information and assets from those same nations.”  The executive summary goes on to lament budget and personnel cuts that have “made management of NASA’s security programs difficult” while adding that “strong leadership, which [the panel] believes NASA has, can accomplish much of what is recommended within existing resource limitations.”

The executive summary says that the report makes 27 recommendations grouped into six topics:

  • Managing Foreign National Access Management as a program
  • Reducing the flexibility given to centers to interpret FNAM requirements
  • Determining critical assets and building mechanisms to protect them
  • Correcting longstanding information technology security issues
  • Changing several aspects of NASA culture
  • Communicating the importance of these changes clearly, firmly and consistently

The recommendations themselves are not included in the executive summary.

Bolden’s response says that he directed “appropriate NASA offices to examine each recommendation and, where appropriate, to incorporate the panel’s recommendation into our processes or identify any barriers to implementation…”   He then lays out where he agrees or not with the panel.  He agrees with the need for a more integrated FNAM program, the need to improve information technology security, and the need for a more systemic and standardized approach to NASA’s export control processes.  He also agreed to elevate awareness of NASA’s counterintelligence program, but disagreed with the panel’s implementation recommendation regarding the reporting structure for Special Agents vis a vis Center Directors.  “NASA believes the underlying factors for the panel’s recommendation can be achieved with an increased focus on the relationship between counterintelligence personnel and their respective Center leadership teams, without eliminating the benefits of the current management approach.”

Bolden also responded to the panel’s finding that NASA “may have a tendency not to be a ‘learning culture’ by arguing that “NASA’s culture combines the richness of diversity and appropriately healthy competition among our Centers, while fostering an overall NASA team environment.” 

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