NASA Warned About Possible Violation

NASA’s Langley Research Center joins NASA’s Ames Research Center in Congress’ security cross-hairs. In a March 4th letter to NASA Administrator Bolden, House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf notified NASA that it might be in violation of law in allowing officials from China to attend the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) Strategic Implementation Team meeting at Langley Research Center from March 12-14.

However, when contacted, NASA Public Affairs News Chief Allard Beutel stated that the Chinese are not attending CEOS. As noted in Representative Wolf’s letter, there is a law (subsection (b) of section 539 of Division B of Public Law 112-55) that requires NASA to notify the House and Senate Appropriation Committees no later than 14 days prior to a NASA center or facility visit by Chinese officials.

In his March 4, 2013, letter to NASA Administrator Bolden, Rep. Wolf stated:

It has come to my attention that NASA will be hosting the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) Strategic Implementation Team meeting at Langley Research Center … and that officials from the People’s Republic of China are currently planning to attend.

… the hosting of official Chinese visitors at facilities belonging to or utilized by NASA is prohibited by subsection (b) of section 539 of Division B of Public Law 112-55, except in cases where NASA has provided appropriate certifications to the Committees on Appropriation of the House of Representatives and the Senate no later than 14 days prior to the visit.

Because it is now less than 14 days before the commencement of the COES meeting and no such certification has been prefaced, the hosting of any Chinese visitors would be in clear violation of the law. Accordingly, I expect any participation by official Chinese visitors will be promptly canceled. Please confirm immediately that the necessary actions have been taken to ensure that the conduct of the CEOS meeting does not violate section 539.

Given this lapse of compliance, I am concerned that there may have been other instances where the law has not been followed.”

Public Law 112-55, Division B, Section 539, Subsection b states:

“Sec. 539. (a) None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally (emphasis added) in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of enactment of this Act.

(b) The limitation in subsection (a) shall also apply to any funds used to effectuate the hosting of official Chinese visitors at facilities belonging to or utilized by NASA.”

According to NASA’s Beutel, “Foreign nationals from specifically designated countries, including China, undergo additional background screening and have strict conditions placed on their visits and activities at NASA. Foreign nationals from specifically designated countries can only have access to and work with information that has been approved for release to the general public. They are additionally subject to full-time escort requirements. Chinese foreign nationals visiting NASA facilities do not violate the appropriations limits on bilateral activities with China because these individuals are not involved in bilateral activities for or on behalf of the Chinese government or Chinese-owned companies. In most cases, they are students at U.S. universities or employees of NASA contractors.”

NASA lawyers have concluded that visits to NASA centers do not violate Section 539 if they are multilateral in nature—that is if such meetings include representatives from many nations, including the United States and China. NASA’s point appears to be that Section 539 affects only bilateral contact—that is contact between U.S. and Chinese representatives.

NASA’s close reading of Section 539 and its interpretation of when certain foreign visits fall under the requirement that NASA inform the House and Senate Appropriations Committees make all but certain that NASA and its chief House appropriator will continue to clash. How such conflict benefits the space agency is unclear.

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