Nuclear physicist loses U.S. clearance, job and right to fight back
Moniem El-Ganayni with Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
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Dr. Moniem El-Ganayni, a nuclear physicist and Muslim prison chaplain, has lost his battle with the Department of Energy to get back his security clearance and his job at the Bettis Laboratory in West Mifflin.
He never even got a chance to tell his side of the story. The reason: unspecified grounds of national security.
Dr. El-Ganayni, 57, a naturalized U.S. citizen since 1988, had hoped to win back his clearance through usual DOE procedures by responding to the anonymous unspecified allegations that led to the temporary suspension of his clearance in October.
On May 19, he learned there would be no hearing, that the government had dropped its investigation of the initial allegations and was revoking his clearance on national security grounds. Bettis fired him and now, he says, he's moving his family to Egypt, the country he thought he'd left for good in 1978.
"I will not live in this country as a second-class citizen," Dr. El-Ganayni said in the midst of packing up his Highland Park apartment. While his lawyers here fight to get him a hearing, he says, he will become reacquainted with his extended family in Cairo and look for a university teaching job where he can use his scientific expertise.
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 grew up in Squirrel Hill.
Mr. Kupfer 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. ... I hereby terminate Mr. El-Ganayni's access to classified information in the interests of national security."
Furthermore, he stated, his decision is "conclusive," meaning the matter is officially closed.
"It's Franz Kafka-land," said Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has taken on Dr. El-Ganayni's case. He vowed to pursue the matter through legal and congressional avenues.
DOE spokeswoman Joann Waldrup said Dr. El-Ganayni's case was a "personnel security matter," and that the department had no comment.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said he was aware of the matter and had asked the DOE for more information.
Dr. El-Ganayni came to the United States in 1980 to study physics and earned two advanced degrees from the University of Pittsburgh. He helped found the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, married Jean Louise Dell'Aquila, then a recent convert to Islam, and went to work at Bettis (then part of Westinghouse Corp.), an advanced naval nuclear propulsion technology lab. He stayed there for 18 years, becoming a senior scientist doing classified research.
On the side, and with Bettis' knowledge, he ministered to Muslim prison inmates in Ohio and Pennsylvania. His clearance was never at issue until last year, when he suddenly fell under suspicion.
Security agents from the DOE and the FBI began questioning his allegiance, asking if he advocated suicide bombing of Americans and Islamic jihad against the United States, charges he denied.
Dr. El-Ganayni said the agents brought up a passage from a book on ant behavior that he distributed to inmates at SCI-Forest in Marienville. The passage, about a species that blows itself up in defense of the colony, was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University. He said they also grilled him about prayers he led and his criticism of what he saw as the FBI's intrusion into local mosques, creating a climate of fear in the post-9/11 Muslim community.
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.
SCI-Forest terminated his contract after five months, and soon after that he was barred from seeing prisoners at the Allegheny County jail -- as were four other Muslim clerics -- a trend Mr. Walczak called "suspicious." One of the barred imams was Kadir Gunduz, who has lived in Pittsburgh since 1988 but was jailed in December on a visa technicality. Released after a public outcry, he still faces deportation to his native Turkey.
Dr. El-Ganayni and his lawyers believe he's being discriminated against because of his national origin, religious beliefs and opposition to the government's treatment of Muslims in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war.
"We believe they're hiding behind the national security shield so they don't have to admit what's really going on," said Mr. Walczyk. "If the government only invoked national security when it was really warranted, we wouldn't be so suspicious. But time and again, we've found out how flimsy and even ridiculous those claims have turned out to be."
Jameel Jaffer, head of the national security project of the ACLU in New York City, said invoking national security was "a way to shut down litigation at the outset. They insist the executive branch has the unilateral and unreviewable right to make decisions, and they don't have to explain it to anybody."
Even so, he said, he didn't know of any other case in which the government had revoked a security clearance but refused to provide an appeal process.
There is no constitutional right to a security clearance, but people doing classified work retain their right to free-speech. However, the Code of Federal Regulations allows virtually any statement or "derogatory" information to be used against an applicant.
The code directs officials to reach "a comprehensive, common sense judgment, made after consideration of all relevant material, favorable and unfavorable ... consistent with the national interest."
It further states: "Any doubt ... shall be resolved in favor of the national security." The Supreme Court has declined to review clearance denials. Dr. El-Ganayni said he would move back to the United States if his clearance is reinstated, but he knows it would be a long time coming.
"A lot of people lose their jobs," he said. "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."
First Published June 1, 2008 12:00 am