Valerie Barr spent a year as a program director in NSF’s education directorate.

Valerie Barr spent a year as a program director in NSF’s education directorate.

Carla Schaffer/AAAS

Researcher loses job at NSF after government questions her role as 1980s activist

Valerie Barr was 22 and living in New York City in 1979 when she became politically active. A recent graduate of New York University with a master’s degree in computer science, 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. Despite her passion for those issues, she had a full-time job as a software developer—with 50-plus-hour workweeks and frequent visits to clients around the country—that took precedence.

After a few years, she found herself devoting even less time to those causes. By the late 1980s, she had resumed her pursuit of an academic career. A quarter-century later, she’s a tenured professor of computer science at Union College in Schenectady, New York, with a national reputation for her work improving computing education and attracting more women and minorities into the field.

That social conscience also led her to decide it was time to “give something back to the community.” So in August 2013 she took a leave from 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.

Colleagues who decry Barr’s fate worry that the incident could make other scientists think twice about coming to work for NSF. In addition, Barr’s case offers a rare glimpse into the practices of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), an obscure agency within the White House that wields vast power over the entire federal bureaucracy through its authority to vet recently hired workers.

Giving back

Barr came to NSF under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA), a mechanism that allows the agency to tap the expertise of the academic community without requiring scientists to leave their current jobs. As an NSF “rotator” she managed a variety of programs, including one that provides scholarships for those studying how to combat cyberterrorism. A colleague, Jane Prey, recruited Barr and regarded her temporary move as quite a coup.

“You want to bring in really great people who are capable of moving the community forward,” says Prey, a computer scientist and former academic who was a program manager at Microsoft before returning to NSF in 2012 for her second stint as a rotator. “Valerie is incredibly talented—she’s a strategic thinker who writes well and is very dependable. She also has an independent mind, which is important.”

Prey says she’s known Barr professionally for many years—both have been active on the Association for Computing Machinery’s committee on women and its education council, for example—and that they began to socialize during their joint stint at NSF. “But she never talked about her political activism in the 1980s,” Prey says. “It just never came up in conversation.”

Who and what she knew

Barr describes that activity as being a “worker bee” on behalf of two groups advocating for women and Puerto Rican independence. 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.

However, according to an OPM summary report that served as the basis for NSF’s decision, Barr was being less than forthright. “You provided no information regarding your affiliations with subgroups of M19CO—a known terrorist organization,” the report notes. Her answers during the interview, it concluded, “constituted a deliberate misrepresentation, falsification, deceit, or omission of material fact.”

Five months later, in April, Barr was summoned to a second interview. This one was conducted by a special agent for the Federal Investigative Services (FIS), an arm of OPM that collects information for purposes of both job suitability and security clearances. (FIS conducted 479,336 such interviews last year, according to the agency’s 2013 annual report.)

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.

But OPM apparently thought otherwise, again citing her “deliberate misrepresentation” in its report. Relying heavily on that investigation, NSF handed Barr a letter on 25 July saying that it planned to terminate her IPA at the end of the first year because the OPM review had found her to be unfit for the job. Last year, OPM reports it pursued 8520 cases in which serious questions about a federal worker’s character and conduct had been raised; between 100 and 200 of those cases resulted in a government-wide debarment.

Barr was given a chance to appeal NSF’s decision, and on 11 August she submitted a letter stating that OPM’s summary report of its investigation “contains many errors or mischaracterizations of my statements.” (As is standard practice, agencies receive only a summary of the OPM investigation, not a full report, and lawyers familiar with the process say that an agent’s interview notes are typically destroyed after the report is written.)

Barr maintains that she had been truthful throughout both interviews, and that “there was no material fact about these organizations for me to omit.” Barr says she was casually acquainted with two of the convicted murderers, Judith Clark and Kuwasi Balagoon (née Donald Weems) but had no prior knowledge of their criminal activities. Clark remains in a maximum security prison for women in New York state, and Balagoon died in 1986 of an AIDS-related illness. (Barr says she wrote to Balagoon occasionally while he was in prison—“it would have been reprehensible for me to drop my correspondence with a dying person,” she explains—and visited him once.)

An academic life

Barr says the special agent’s detailed questions during the second interview caught her by surprise. “I had not thought back on that period of political activity for several decades,” she says.

After heading back to school, Barr earned her Ph.D. in 1996 from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and taught for 9 years at Hofstra University on Long Island in New York before joining Union College in 2004 as department chair. There she revamped the computer science curriculum, broadening its introductory courses to make them more enticing for women and minorities and strengthening collaborations with other departments to expose more nonmajors to computer science. “She completely transformed that department,” says Jennifer Goodall, a service professor in the informatics department at the University at Albany, who has worked with Barr on statewide conferences to promote women and computing.

Goodall says she and her colleagues were very happy that Barr had decided to work at NSF. “We were excited because she has a nontraditional computer sciences background,” says Goodall, who considers Barr a professional role model. “She’s a woman, a lesbian, and she has a long track record of improving diversity in computer science.”

Barr expected those achievements to weigh in her favor once investigators questioned her fitness to work at NSF. Instead, Barr believes those professional accomplishments may have counted against her.

In her 11 August response, Barr questioned whether the special agent who conducted the investigation “can be an impartial evaluator of academic scientists, or anyone with liberal political beliefs.” As evidence, she points to a posting on a blog maintained by the agent, a veteran who served in Iraq, and his family. The item is a copy of a popular Internet meme about an incident that supposedly took place in an introductory college biology course.

According to the story, a “typical liberal college professor and avowed atheist” declares his intent to prove that there is no God by giving the creator 15 minutes to strike him from the podium. A few minutes before the deadline, a Marine “just released from active duty and newly registered” walks up to the professor and knocks him out with one punch. When the professor recovers and asks for an explanation, the Marine replies, “God was busy. He sent me.”

OPM calls the shots

When the federal government needs to screen newly hired workers, it sends OPM to do the job. Its investigative branch handles both background checks and security clearances. The key metric is suitability—which OPM defines as “a person’s identifiable character traits and conduct sufficient to decide whether employment or continued employment would or would not protect the integrity or promote the efficiency of [federal] service.”

A PowerPoint presentation on OPM’s website titled “Taking Adverse Actions Based on Suitability or Security Issues” explains the process. A ruling of unsuitability must be based on one or more of eight factors, including criminal conduct, negligence, and substance abuse. Although using violence against the U.S. government is one such factor, the presentation notes that “[m]embership in an organization, alone, is not disqualifying.” Mitigating circumstances, it adds, can include the timeliness of the unsuitable activity—“[t]he more recent the conduct is, the greater the potential for disqualification.”

The complexity of the process puts OPM in the driver’s seat, say lawyers who have handled many federal employment cases. “Suitability is a very amorphous subject, unlike security clearances, where there are clear rules,” says Sheldon Cohen, an attorney in Oakton, Virginia, who specializes in security clearances. In the absence of such guidance, he says, individual agencies feel they have no choice but to follow OPM’s advice.

“If OPM recommends that a person is unfit, the agency will follow that recommendation, period,” Cohen says. “Agencies have the authority to reject OPM’s recommendation, but they don’t exercise it, ever.”

An NSF official describes that relationship somewhat differently, but acknowledges that the end result is the same. “OPM plays no immediate role in the suitability determination and does not review individual agency determinations,” says Judith Sunley, head of NSF’s Division of Human Resource Management. But, she adds, “agency adjudicative decisions must be consistent with government-wide standards established by OPM. Once a determination of lack of suitability is made using those standards, agencies have very little discretion in their actions.”

Attorney Joseph Kaplan, of the Washington, D.C., firm Passman & Kaplan, says that, in his experience, the most common reasons for a finding of unsuitability are lying about one’s educational background, one’s employment history, or one’s criminal record. “If OPM determines that the person has misled or provided false information,” he says, “they can be declared unfit for federal service.”

Kaplan says he’s never heard of anyone being drummed out for political activity that occurred decades ago. At the same time, he says, the government’s decision is based not on anything Barr did during the 1980s but on how she explained those activities to federal investigators after coming to work at NSF. He also believes that the U.S. government has become more cautious since the 2001 terrorist attacks. “Ever since 9/11, the government has been much more vigorous in finding people unfit for service,” Kaplan says.

ScienceInsider was unable to verify that claim. An OPM representative says the agency “does not [OPM’s emphasis] track data on people found unsuitable for federal service.” Although NSF keeps its own statistics, it declined to provide them. However, Sunley suggests that the numbers, although small, could be rising.

“NSF has been gradually upgrading its personnel security program for the past 2 years and those doing background investigations are being held to higher standards as well,” she says. “Thus, numbers from past years are not good indicators for the future, although it is safe to say that they have been, and will likely remain, very small.”

Cohen speculates that the massive leaks by Edward Snowden of national security secrets, which began in June 2013, could also have been a factor in NSF’s decision. “If it’s a matter of weighing the employee’s statement against what the investigator says he has found, agencies will resolve it in favor of national security,” Cohen says. “That’s just how it is, especially after Snowden.”

Not surprisingly, Barr feels such a policy doesn’t do enough to protect innocent people like herself. Without access to the evidence that OPM used to make its case against her, she says, “all I have been able to do is repeatedly assert that I told the truth.”

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 Cordova 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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