06/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Repubs' War on One Particular Scientist

There's a certain amount of irony in the Washington Post's story about "an expert panel of scientists, and audience members, agree[ing] that the United States is losing stature because of a perceived high-level disdain for science." Perceived? That "perception" is well documented in Chris Mooney's book The Republican War on Science. Under the guise of the "war on terror," the current administration is also attacking foreign-born scientists, of whom we have -- and need -- many, asserts William A. Wulf, Ph.D., president of the National Academy of Engineering.

Between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of Ph.D. scientists and engineers employed in the United States who were born abroad has increased from 24% to 37%. The current percentage of Ph.D. physicists is about 45%; for engineers, the figure is over 50%. One fourth of the engineering faculty members at U.S. universities were born abroad. Between 1990 and 2004, over one third of Nobel Prizes in the United States were awarded to foreign-born scientists. One third of all U.S. Ph.D's in science and engineering are now awarded to foreign born graduate students. We have been skimming the best and brightest minds from across the globe, and prospering because of it; we need these new Americans even more now as other countries become more technologically capable. [emphasis added.]

So you'd think the US would want to hold onto good nuclear physicists, right? Especially American citizens who have been active in the community as well as excellent scientists?

Unless you live in Pittsburgh, and read the Post-Gazette, you haven't heard anything about the story of Dr. Moniem El-Ganayni. An American citizen for 20 years, the nuclear physicist worked for 18 years here at the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, until his security clearance was abruptly suspended last October. The case didn't attract any media notice until the PG's Sally Kalson first wrote about it in February.

Without his clearance, and at age 57, Dr. El-Ganayni stands to lose much of what he has worked for since arriving in this country in 1980. His job and medical benefits are in jeopardy. A U.S. citizen since 1988, he won't be able to work in his field, and, if his clearance is not reinstated after an upcoming hearing, he says he'll probably return to Egypt with his American-born wife.

That hearing never happened.

The decision to revoke Dr. El-Ganayni's clearance without holding a hearing was made by acting Deputy Secretary of Energy Jeffrey F. Kupfer, a Bush administration insider .... [who] certified that the appeals process set forth in DOE regulations "cannot be made available ... without damaging the interests of national security by revealing classified information. ...

Furthermore, he stated, his decision is "conclusive," meaning the matter is officially closed.

The ACLU has been trying to help Dr. El-Ganayni and "untold number of Middle Eastern immigrants and Muslims across the country have been quietly ensnared by measures aimed at strengthening national security in a post-9/11 world."

There is no way of knowing just how many, said Art Spitzer, director of the Washington, D.C., affiliate, of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We've heard about a number of cases involving security clearances, so there must be a lot more we haven't heard about," Mr. Spitzer said.

(Disclosure: I am a board member of the Greater Pittsburgh chapter of the ACLU, though I am not personally involved in this case.)

Ms. Kalson reports that the "DOE, FBI, Bettis and SCI-Forest [a state prison at which Dr. El-Ganayni worked with Muslim prisoners as an iman] all declined comment" on why or how the security clearance was put in jeopardy in the first place. But in the extensive questionings of the physicist by DOE and the FBI, he got the impression that it was solely his non-work-related activity as an iman that was at issue.

Dr. El-Ganayni believes the complaints against him originated with prison authorities, with whom he had disagreements over the observance of Ramadan -- the month in which Muslims are obligated to fast during the daytime -- and visiting hours.

(Read the story for the background, including the bit about suicide-bomber ants, which is actually from Journey to the Ants, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning winning biologists Edward O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler.)

Invoking national security is "a way to shut down litigation at the outset," says Jameel Jaffer, head of the national security project of the ACLU in New York City. "They insist the executive branch has the unilateral and unreviewable right to make decisions, and they don't have to explain it to anybody."

So a national laboratory loses a valuable scientist and a respected American citizen loses his job -- and never has his day in court.

A lot of people lose their jobs, [says Dr. El-Ganayni.] What bothers me is the way it's been done. They are taking away my livelihood without any due process. Even a serial killer gets a chance to defend himself. This is not justice.