Last November, Vanity Fair magazine ran an expos? on security vulnerabilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory and other Energy Department facilities around the nation. Based on disclosures by Energy whistleblowers, the article charged that mock “terrorists” have repeatedly defeated security forces during exercises of the lab’s security system. The whistleblowers said that the “terrorists” penetrated lab security and then got away undetected. The worry is that real terrorists could steal substantial amounts of the plutonium or highly enriched uranium stored at these facilities. If true, this would be more than enough for an improvised nuclear device that Homeland Security officials say is their worst nightmare.
Energy Department officials categorically rejected these allegations, but a 1999 government report found that security problems are endemic at the labs-and long standing. In particular, the report raised concerns about the security of significant amounts of fissile materials held in facilities “never intended for use as storage.” These concerns linger despite the expenditure of literally hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on guards, gates, and guns over the years.
Security forces at a nuclear plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., however, have found a way to avoid all the bad publicity arising from such failures. They cheated. An internal Energy Department report recently revealed that members of the guard force got advance looks at the test questions for upcoming exercises. The guard force knew in advance which buildings “mock terrorists” would be attacking down to the exact wall they would try to penetrate. Guards were also told whether the attackers would employ “diversionary tactics” in advance of the exercise assault. That knowledge enabled the guard force to prepare for the mock assault; security managers ensured that the best-trained personnel were on-hand to repel the mock terrorists, and other countermeasures were put in place to ensure success. They also disabled electronic devices on their weapons so their “deaths” at the hands of the terrorists would not be registered. The internal report concluded that the results of these tests of the plant’s security force were tainted and unreliable.
Wackenhut, the security contractor, denied the allegations and claimed “security today is much better than it has been.” But inspectors were told that this cheating has been going on at Oak Ridge since at least the mid-1980s. The whistleblowers in the Vanity Fair article also alleged that guard forces at Los Alamos and elsewhere were often warned in advance of upcoming exercise events.
So why did they cheat? That’s easy-money. Last September, Wackenhut received over $3 million in fees as a reward for its “outstanding” performance on security. That gave the inspectors heartburn and they recommended that the department pay close attention to their findings when it next evaluates Wackenhut’s performance. But this is the second time in recent months that the department’s federal oversight appears to have broken down. The last such incident involved security vulnerabilities resulting from the loss or theft of master keys and key cards at Livermore National Lab in California.
Moreover, none of this was supposed to happen on the Bush administration watch. In response to the public outcry over China’s theft of nuclear secrets and the mysterious loss of classified computer hard drives, Congressional Republicans pushed through a restructuring of the Energy Department late in the Clinton years. They created a new, semi-autonomous agency within the department that is specifically tasked to ensure the security and safety of the nation’s nuclear-weapons laboratories. They were also harshly critical of the Clinton-appointed leadership of the department and vowed that, given the opportunity, they would ensure that future secretaries would have solid national security and intelligence credentials.
But the new administration failed to clean out the Clinton holdovers; former security officials reported that the “same old faces” occupy the new agency’s top security positions. And it is increasingly evident that lab security has fared no better under the new agency than before. If the labs’ past history is any guide, lost master keys, missing computer disks and lost or stolen computers containing classified data, “fudged” security tests, and misappropriated taxpayer funds are only the tip of the security iceberg. And, as before, the new agency crushes anyone who dared voice concerns about security failures. After 9/11, everything was supposed to have changed, but the labs and their federal masters in Washington apparently didn’t get the message.