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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: 3) by khallow on Friday September 12 2014, @09:00PM

    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday September 12 2014, @09:00PM (#92575) Journal

    Given what her job entails, there's no reason for the background check, particularly for an interview. What strikes me as the ugliest part of this episode is that such interrogations are considered routine despite their irrelevance.

    As to her alleged lying, the employer should have an obligation to avoid unnecessary temptation. Most private employers have no business asking you about things that happened 20 years ago. And if she did lie as claimed, then it was about something immaterial to her job and in order to curtail an unpleasant experience. To give an analogy, that's like a bank just leaving money lying around to be taken rather than locked up with strict accounting. Behaviorally, I think a lot of people, if not most of us, have trouble resisting easy temptation. Sometimes being able to resist such things is a relevant job requirement (eg, military special forces). But not for the NSF.

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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 13 2014, @12:00AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 13 2014, @12:00AM (#92619)

    Sometimes being able to resist such things is a relevant job requirement (eg, military special forces). But not for the NSF.

    I didn't RTFA but this is the most disturbing part of this. What relevance does her past political associations (20 years ago?) have to her actual job duties? did no one at NSF even bother to ask this question? You would think that, as a bunch of scientists, someone at NSF would have noticed this and asked about it. I guess that they really are all a bunch of McCarthyists or maybe they really are just that clueless?