Three Los Alamos whistleblowers finally got to tell their story to Congress recently. At a hearing before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, congressmen expressed shock and outrage at the testimony of Glenn A. Walp, Steve Doran and Jaret McDonald. The Inspector General of the Energy Department told the subcommittee that his inquiries had confirmed many of the problems uncovered by the three. A University of California vice president, also present at the hearing, apologized to the Congress for the university’s management failures at Los Alamos, promised to do better in the future, and told members that “the experience has strengthened us.” Whether those assurances will be enough to save the university’s contract to manage the lab will not be known until later in March.
The subcommittee was most interested in the whistleblowers’ account of efforts by lab managers to cover up widespread abuses and obstruct investigations, including those by the FBI, into the scandal. These efforts went all the way up to the lab’s principal deputy director, who has since been fired. In particular, they alleged that the lab’s general counsel had tampered with evidence and obstructed the FBI’s inquiries. They further charged that the general counsel had tried to compromise “secure, confidential FBI investigative notes” by sharing information from those notes with individuals and organizations under scrutiny.
Subcommittee members wondered how Los Alamos could protect nuclear secrets and stockpiles of nuclear materials if the lab was unable to exercise internal controls on the actions of its employees. The loss or theft of more than 350 computers, many from locations where highly classified work is performed, does not seem to have raised any serious concerns at Los Alamos about the potential compromise of sensitive or classified data. The lab had never accounted for these computers until asked by the Inspector General in late 2002; it then produced a memo dated mid-December stating that “none of the lost, stolen, or unlocated computers identified by Los Alamos contained classified information.” In testimony, the Inspector General could only say that his office had “not validated” the lab’s conclusion.
This scandal, coming on top of three other national security scandals at Los Alamos, should also raise serious questions about the Energy Department’s management of the labs. Security reform and restructuring has been a major focus of the Department since 1999; in the wake of these scandals, the Congress established the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to provide more effective management of the nation’s nuclear warhead design labs. Critics have likened this to “rearranging the deck chairs” and the perpetuation of a “bureaucracy that has failed,” since many of those responsible for the earlier scandals simply changed job titles. And there have been continuing reports that lab “insiders” can still download nuclear secrets on portable magnetic tapes and carry the tapes out of the lab unmolested, just like convicted felon Wen Ho Lee did for nearly ten years. The lab tests its security force by running simulations and force-on-force exercises; internal data show a failure rate in excess of 50 percent. Perhaps most revealing was the Inspector General’s report that the new NNSA had graded Los Alamos’ personal property and procurement management controls “excellent” in December 2002. No wonder lab managers believe they can get away with it; they can count on DOE Headquarters to look the other way.
The scandal has been unfolding over the past six months and has been covered well by local media in New Mexico and, most notably, by CBS Evening News’ Sharyl Attkisson. The Washington Post and the New York Times passed up reporting on the congressional hearing. But most observers have yet to grasp the most significant implication of the whole sordid affair.
The Bush administration says that nuclear weapons continue to be the backbone of our strategic deterrent. News reports indicate the administration contemplates using these weapons in response to chemical or biological attacks on U.S. forces. The question is, if called upon, will the weapons work?
It has been more than a decade since any U.S. nuclear warhead has been tested in the Nevada desert. The Clinton administration cut a deal with the nuclear labs by which the labs would support the administration’s comprehensive ban on nuclear testing in return for sustained funding and support for the nuclear design labs. Henceforth, the reliability and the safety of the nuclear stockpile would be verified by computer testing and a robust surveillance program. Ultimately, however, the administration has to take the “word” of lab managers, like those at Los Alamos, that our nuclear stockpile is reliable and safe. The latest revelations about Los Alamos management serve only to further undermine the credibility of the labs and their managers in Washington.