Officials at NASA’s Ames Research Center did not intentionally violate export control laws but “exercised poor judgment” in sharing ITAR-restricted information with foreign nationals at the center, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) concluded in a report summary published Wednesday.
The investigation stemmed from complaints that foreign nationals working at Ames had access to information that should have been restricted under export control regulations. The OIG’s investigation continued after the US Attorney’s office closed its criminal investigation a year ago without filing any charges. The OIG’s investigation wrapped up earlier this month with a full report (not publicly released “because it contains information protected by the Privacy Act of 1974,” the summary notes) to the NASA administrator.
The OIG, like the earlier criminal probe, found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing by any Ames officials, but did identify some carelessness in how they treated access to ITAR-restricted information. “In sum, we did not find intentional misconduct by any Ames civil servants,” the OIG summary states, “but believe some Ames managers exercised poor judgment in their dealings with foreign nationals who worked on Center.”
The report summary adds that there was “significant disagreement between scientists and engineers at Ames and export control personnel at the Center and NASA Headquarters as to whether the work the foreign nationals were performing at Ames involved ITAR-controlled technology,” which contributed to the issue. “We concluded that these incidents resulted more from carelessness and a genuine disagreement about whether the information qualified for ITAR protection than an intentional effort to bypass ITAR restrictions.”
In a letter, NASA administrator Charles Bolden accepted the OIG’s report. “I take these findings seriously and have asked Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot to assess your findings and recommend any potential corrective actions to address the concerns raised in your report,” Bolden wrote.
The OIG report comes two weeks after the completion of an independent report on “NASA’s Foreign National Access Management,” triggered by the Ames incidents as well as the arrest of a Chinese national working at NASA Langley who was originally believed to have tried to transfer restricted information. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) claimed that report indicated a “persistent organizational culture” that failed to hold NASA employees responsible for security violations.
While the OIG report found no evidence of intentional efforts at Ames to subvert export control regulations, one key member of Congress still expressed concern about the agency’s security practices. “The casual treatment of foreign national access, ITAR, and export controls at Ames Research Center is simply another example of NASA’s negligence,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, in a statement provided by the committee. “Several such incidents and reports portray an agency struggling to manage sensitive technical information. I hope that the administration will take these reports seriously and implement the recommended changes to ensure that NASA is not leaking our nation’s prized aerospace technology.”