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I heard it but couldn’t believe it. I had to whip out my phone and start surfing the web for information about it. Surely the quote was taken out of context. He must have been misquoted…but alas, no. I looked at the links Google had returned, selected one and started reading.

Apparently NASA, whose historic mission was to promote and help lead research and development in the field of science, math, and engineering in the US and to develop America’s space capabilities has now been charged with a new mission – to reach out to Muslim (and predominantly Muslim) nations – to help them “feel good” about their contributions to math, science and engineering – to “boldly” go where no one has gone before!

I read it and just about fell off my chair. What kind of nonsense is this? I figured that perhaps the writer of the column must have gotten it wrong. He must have misunderstood. Sadly…no. I heard it from the proverbial “horse’s mouth”:

Yep…you heard it right. Apparently President Obama charged NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, with a new mission for NASA. No longer was space exploration (either manned or unmanned) it’s primary goal. No longer was research into aeronautics and astronautics a goal. No…the new goals are:

  1. Help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math,
  2. Expand America’s international relationships, and
  3. Reach out to the Muslim world

Ok…#1 and #2 — that makes sense. When I heard #3 my brain did a quick double take to make sure I understood what I had just heard and read. #1 and #2 fit in with NASA’s historic missions of science, math, and engineering research and development as well as our cooperative efforts in space exploration with other countries. But #3? Now, NASA is supposed to “reach out to the Muslim world”? And not just reach out to the Muslim world (as well as the “dominantly Muslim nations”) but to “help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.” You know, I’m sorry if they don’t “feel good” about themselves or their past contributions to science, math and engineering…but is that really America’s fault? I mean come on, yes, Islam did make very significant contributions to math, science, and engineering but that ended centuries ago. Since the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 Islam’s advances in sciences has been on the decline and has continued to do so due to a wide variety of factors. But why does the American taxpayer have to pay for NASA to reach out to the Muslim world in order to make them “feel good” about those contributions? That is not what NASA’s mission ever was or should be.

And why does this administration single out Muslim and “dominantly Muslim” nations as a focus for this effort? Why not reach out to the Indians? Or the Congolese? Or the Zulu? Why the Muslims? As Charles Lane of the Washington Post put it:

But does it follow that the U.S. government should seek cooperation on space projects with the government of a particular country explicitly because its people are mostly Muslim?

Doesn’t this put us in the position of categorizing nations by religion as opposed to other characteristics, such as whether they are democratic? We did not pursue space partnerships with Europe because it was “Christian” or Israel because it was Jewish, did we?

Lane, Charles, “NASA: Mission to Mecca“, Washington Post, July 7, 2010

This is one of the most ridiculous re-visioning of NASA’s mission that I have ever seen. First, President Obama says that we can’t get anywhere beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) without international help (hmmm….let me see…aren’t we still the only country who has landed a man on the moon and returned him safely to earth – even now…40 years after the accomplishment was made?) and now he wants NASA to become some sort of outreach organization to help Muslims feel good about their past accomplishments. If the Muslims want to feel good about their past accomplishments they can certainly do so without our help. On top of that it seems that this administration policy may well be in violation of the U.S. Constitution. As Charles Lane of the Washington Post continues:

[T]he Constitution expressly forbid[s] the establishment of religion. How can it be consistent with that mandate and the deeply held political and cultural values that it expresses for the U.S. government to “reach out” to another government because the people it rules are mostly of a particular faith?

Lane, Charles, “NASA: Mission to Mecca“, Washington Post, July 7, 2010

This has to be one of the worst ideas to come out of this administration. It is a waste of NASA talent, a waste of American taxpayer money, and it certainly doesn’t make sense…to me as well as to many other people. As Charles Krauthammer said in an interview on Fox News: “This is a new height in fatuousness…this idea to feel good about their past scientific achievements is the worst combination of group therapy, psycho-babble, imperial condescension, and adolescent diplomacy. If I didn’t know that Obama had told this I’d demand the firing of Charles Bolden.” Amen to that Mr. Krauthammer…Amen to that!

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“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” — Benjamin Franklin

As if the airlines and TSA haven’t made traveling hard enough for the leisure or business traveler it has now become even harder. The Washington Post reported on August 1st in their article, Travelers’ Laptops May Be Detained At Border :

Federal agents may take a traveler’s laptop computer or other electronic device to an off-site location for an unspecified period of time without any suspicion of wrongdoing, as part of border search policies the Department of Homeland Security recently disclosed.

Also, officials may share copies of the laptop’s contents with other agencies and private entities for language translation, data decryption or other reasons, according to the policies, dated July 16 and issued by two DHS agencies, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

(Nakashima, Ellen, Travelers’ Laptops May Be Detained At Border, The Washington Post, August 1, 2008 )

These policies apply to anyone entering the country through any means — not just at airports but at border crossings from Canada, Mexico, or at seaports throughout the United States. The search and seizure can occur without any probably suspicion by the officials and the items taken can be held for an indefinite period of time. Laptops are not the only items that can be taken for examination

international travelers have reported that their laptops, cellphones and other digital devices had been taken — for months, in at least one case — and their contents examined.

The policies state that officers may “detain” laptops “for a reasonable period of time” to “review and analyze information.” This may take place “absent individualized suspicion.”

The policies cover “any device capable of storing information in digital or analog form,” including hard drives, flash drives, cellphones, iPods, pagers, beepers, and video and audio tapes. They also cover “all papers and other written documentation,” including books, pamphlets and “written materials commonly referred to as ‘pocket trash’ or ‘pocket litter.’ ”

(Nakashima, Ellen, Travelers’ Laptops May Be Detained At Border, The Washington Post, August 1, 2008 )

What this means is that even your personal diary can be taken and examined by DHS at their discretion even though you may have no connection to terrorism, narcotics trafficking, child pornography or any other of a multitude of crimes. What would be interesting is if someone writes in a diary that confesses to a lessor crime – say cheating on their federal taxes – and this is discovered during one of these inspections that apparently would be actionable. According to the policies released by DHS on July 16 2008 the

examinations of documents and electronic devices are a crucial tool for detecting information concerning terrorism, narcotics smuggling, and other national security matters; alien admissibility; contraband including child pornography, monetary instruments, and information in violation of copyright or trademark laws; and evidence of embargo violations or other import or export control laws.

(Department of Homeland Security, “Policy Regarding Border Search of Information“, July 16 2008, as found on the Center for Democracy and Technology‘s website)

As can be seen from this excerpt, any infraction found by DHS can be actionable — whether it is something major like information related to terrorism or something minor like a confession in a diary that you feel like you may have cheated on your taxes or ran a red light. This policy appears to be in violation of the 4th amendment of the U.S. Constitution

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the case of U.S. v. Arnold that searches of laptops at the border without reasonable suspicion does not constitute a violation of the 4th amendment because the laptop is considered a “closed container” and the U.S. courts have long held that “searches of closed containers and their contents can be conducted at the border without particularized suspicion under the Fourth Amendment” (United States v. Arnold, No. 06-50581,(9th Cir April 21, 2008 )). Previous court rulings have allowed for the searches of briefcases and luggage, purses, wallets, pockets, pictures, films and other graphic materials when these items cross the border.

However, while this may not be a violation of a person’s 4th amendment, the fact remains that such unwarranted searches are a violation of their privacy. Officially, the items gathered by the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents during such a search can be held for further inspection for a “reasonable period.” The policies do not specify any specific length of time. The policies do, however, specify that if no reasonable suspicion is found then the information gathered must be destroyed. However, in section B of the policy it states “Nothing in this policy limits the authority of an officer to make written notes or reports or to document impressions relating to a border encounter.”
(Department of Homeland Security, “Policy Regarding Border Search of Information“, July 16 2008, as found on the Center for Democracy and Technology‘s website).

So, if you’re a business person and you are traveling with confidential information, a CBP agent can inspect your documents or your laptop, make notes of what they find, and then return your documents to you. If they make copies of the documents, then, when the search is concluded, those copies must be destroyed but the notes they take do not have to be destroyed. Additionally, CBP can share the information they copy with other agencies and the policy does not require those other agencies to destroy their copies of the information gathered even if CBP determines that there is no probable cause. Now, the information they gather must be handled properly — especially in cases of business confidential information and other similar documents. However, the fact that any border agent can rifle through your personal notes and diary looking for anything leaves the distasteful feeling that the 4th amendment is quickly being chipped away by the government in the name of fighting terrorism. Remember that the next time you travel outside the United States — just leave that manuscript for your novel at home.

Note: See here for how to try and protect your personal information when traveling overseas.

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