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posted by LaminatorX on Friday September 12 2014, @12:18PM   Printer-friendly
from the guilt-by-friend-of-a-friend dept.

Jeffrey Mervis reports at Science AAAS that in 1979 Valerie Barr handed out leaflets, stood behind tables at rallies, and baked cookies to support two left-wing groups, the Women’s Committee Against Genocide and the New Movement in Solidarity with Puerto Rican Independence. In August 2013 she took a leave from her position as tenured professor of computer science at Union College to join the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a program director in its Division of Undergraduate Education. And that’s when her 3-decade-old foray into political activism came back to haunt her. Federal investigators say that Barr lied during a routine background check about her affiliations with a domestic terrorist group that had ties to the two organizations to which she had belonged in the early 1980s. On 27 August, NSF said that her “dishonest conduct” compelled them to cancel her temporary assignment immediately, at the end of the first of what was expected to be a 2-year stint. Federal investigators say those groups were affiliated with a third, the May 19 Communist Organization (M19CO), that carried out a string of violent acts, including the killing of two police officers and a security guard during a failed 1981 robbery of a Brink’s truck near Nyack, New York.

Barr’s first background interview was held in November 2013, 3 months after she began working at NSF. During that session, Barr answered “no” when asked if she had ever been a member of an organization “dedicated to the use of violence” to overthrow the U.S. government or to prevent others from exercising their constitutional rights. In a second interview after again being asked if she had been a member of any organization that espoused violence, Barr was grilled for 4.5 hours about her knowledge of all three organizations and several individuals with ties to them, including the persons who tried to rob the Brink’s truck. Four people were found guilty of murder in that attack and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, including Kathy Boudin, who was released in 2003 and is now an adjunct assistant professor of social work at Columbia University. “I found out about the Brink’s robbery by hearing it on the news, and just like everybody else I was shocked,” she recalls.

Barr says she is thankful that Union College has welcomed her back with open arms and says she will soon resume her teaching and research activities. In addition, she regards her year at NSF as “a very rewarding experience in many ways.” Even so, she has written to her representatives in Congress and to NSF Director France Córdova asking them to examine what she labels an “Orwellian process” for vetting rotators like herself. “We volunteer to do this,” she wrote Córdova on 29 August. Until a better process is put in place, Barr says, “NSF runs the risk that many highly qualified scientists will not even consider serving as IPAs. That will be a tremendous loss.”

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  • (Score: 1) by arashi no garou on Friday September 12 2014, @02:08PM

    by arashi no garou (2796) on Friday September 12 2014, @02:08PM (#92397)

    I'm thinking you didn't read it. She wasn't fired for her connections to those groups, she was fired for lying about it. While it's possible they might have dismissed her for her connections, they definitely dismissed her for lying about it.

    I once worked in law enforcement, and you have to pass a polygraph to get hired. It's possible to get hired even with skeletons in your closet; one of our deputies was a reformed biker gang member who had been arrested for marijuana possession in his 20s. Ten years later he was able to work as a cop, because he was honest about it during the polygraph.

  • (Score: 5, Insightful) by pe1rxq on Friday September 12 2014, @02:26PM

    by pe1rxq (844) on Friday September 12 2014, @02:26PM (#92402) Homepage

    It is only lying if you know you are not telling the truth.
    If I understand the article correctly she was never part of the M19CO group herself. She might not have known about the connections between the different groups.
    (It is very much possible to be against genocide and in favor of independance without supporting robbery)
    It seems they can only prove she might have been naive 30 years ago.

  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by MrGuy on Friday September 12 2014, @02:48PM

    by MrGuy (1007) on Friday September 12 2014, @02:48PM (#92412)

    Nope. Think it's still you who didn't read it.

    In the first instance, she was asked if she was affiliated with any group "dedicated to the use of violence". And she answered no, because she wasn't. She was affiliated with a group that advocated for womens' rights, and another that advocated for Puerto Rican independence. Neither group was dedicated to nor advocated violence. However, those groups had some membership overlap with another group (M19CO), which DID commit violent acts. Note the language that the GROUPS that she was part of were affiliated with the GROUP M19CO. It's not saying all the members of one were members of the other. Nor does it appear alleged anywhere that SHE was a member of M19CO.

    This means the initial answer "no" is truthful. She was NOT personally a member of a group dedicated to violence.

    Membership in groups and what was in people's hearts is hard to reverse engineer, especially after the fact. The SDS was a student organization dedicated to non-violent anti-war protesting. Some senior members of SDS broke off and formed the Weathermen, who were most definitely dedicated to violent acts. Does this make every member of SDS a member of a group "dedicated to the use of violence?" Clearly not. Were there people who were members of the SDS who wanted violence? Obviously, since they broke off and formed such a group. Knowing someone was a member of SDS doesn't tell us much.

    It's open to question whether she tacitly supported the violence advocated by M19CO by being a member of non-violent groups that overlapped with M19CO. Neither you nor I know whether that was true. However, the NSF concluded this as "constitut(ing) a deliberate misrepresentation, falsification, deceit, or omission of material fact."

    I suppose the position the NSF takes is that she should have disclosed she was a member of a group that had members in other groups that supported violence - that the "one off" relationship was material and should have been disclosed. If that's their position, their question ought to be more explicit, IMO. Because how far do you go? Should someone who supports Tea Party organizations answer "yes" because some Tea Party organizations are supported by militia movements that advocate secession from the US (violently if necessary)?

    Personally (while I have mixed feelings on Aaron Sorkin), I think an episode of The West Wing nailed this point - someone deliberately answered "yes" to that question, just to point out how stupid the question was. Because who the hell would ever answer yes?

    • (Score: 1) by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 12 2014, @03:42PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 12 2014, @03:42PM (#92437)

      The other part of this is that the job was director of undergraduate studies. They (and this is the Office of Personnel Management, not the NSF) really have no business asking questions like that. It isn't a national security position. They are just asking stupid shit because the OPM handles national security jobs too and somewhere along the line some busy-body decided to ratchet up the pressure on normal people because there was little to stop it. Then that authority ends up in the hands of an investigator who, judging by his facebook posts, is primed to see liberals as enemies of the state and we end up witnessing the creeping nature of authoritarianism.

    • (Score: 2, Insightful) by arashi no garou on Friday September 12 2014, @04:19PM

      by arashi no garou (2796) on Friday September 12 2014, @04:19PM (#92462)

      Because who the hell would ever answer yes?

      I think this is at the root of the problem, as you indicated in your post. The question should never have been asked in the first place, in my mind. But the safe answer in most people's minds when put on the spot is "no", which can then be twisted around against the person being asked.

      Honestly I think they may have known about her affiliations during the hiring process, and it only became an issue once the feds were involved. That said, I stand behind my affirmation that telling the truth in an interview or polygraph is the best thing to do. You may not get the job, but it won't be because you lied.

      • (Score: 1) by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 12 2014, @04:25PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 12 2014, @04:25PM (#92467)

        > I stand behind my affirmation that telling the truth in an interview or polygraph is the best thing to do

        Bully for you!

        Now if you would only decide that reading the article for comprehension, rather than skimming it for bias confirmation, was the best thing to do too, we would be all set.