“Bury it, classify it, and get rid of the people who uncovered it.” That is the prescription for dealing with problems and scandals inside the nation’s nuclear laboratory complex. That formula has been applied time and again, especially when the problems involve security, staggering budgetary overruns, or corruption. A newly released internal Energy Department review found that Los Alamos National Laboratory officials tried to apply that formula to bury the corruption scandal that has been brewing for months at the New Mexico weapons lab.
A special inquiry, conducted by the Department’s Inspector General, has now validated many of the concerns raised by whistleblowers about the misappropriation of funds and mishandling of lab property at Los Alamos. Although written in carefully stilted “bureaucratese,” the inquiry reveals the depth of the management problems at Los Alamos. The report raises, but does not resolve, questions about the national security implications of the scandal. For example, it cites the loss of a security radio and the failure of the Lab to determine whether frequencies used by lab-security personnel might have been compromised.
Most notably, Lab officials have consistently denied any national security problem stemming from the “loss” of more than 300 computers, at least 44 of which the Lab acknowledged were “stolen.” Given the Lab’s national security mission and the volume of classified data Lab scientists routinely handle, Lab officials might have been expected to investigate such concerns. But whistleblowers alleged that the Lab made no effort to determine whether any of the lost, missing, or stolen computers might have contained classified data.
The Energy Department inquiry confirmed that allegation. When inspectors asked about compromised information, the Lab produced a “draft memorandum, dated December 18, 2002,” concluding that none of the missing computers contained classified information. The inquiry deemed it “troubling” that little or no effort had been devoted to such assessments before the inquiry was initiated in November 2002. Further, the inquiry was unable to determine precisely how Lab officials concluded that no security compromises had occurred.
Beyond missing computers, two employees with high-level security clearances were found to have assembled a spy tool kit that included lock picks, anti-bugging devices, and eavesdropping devices. One of these employees reportedly sought information from co-workers about gaining access to top-secret facilities on Lab property. However, a senior Los Alamos official claimed, “I was never concerned about them compromising information.” The Lab’s only fear was that the two might have been subject to blackmail for their misappropriation of more than $50,000 of Lab funds. The Lab claims that once the two fell under suspicion, they were enveloped by a “counterintelligence bubble.” That official making this claim, however, was himself deeply involved in the cover-up of Chinese nuclear espionage at the Lab in the late 1990s.
The inquiry also examined allegations that Lab officials tried to cover up the scandal. The report concluded that allegations that Lab managers “deliberately hid criminal activity” could not be substantiated. Nevertheless, it cited actions taken by Lab officials that “contributed to an atmosphere where Los Alamos employees were discouraged from, or had reason to believe that they were discouraged from, raising concerns about property loss and theft, or other concerns, to appropriate authorities.” Among these actions, the inquiry identified documents issued to Lab employees, just prior to an upcoming audit, that urged them to “resist the temptation to ‘spill your guts;'” and warned, “finger pointing will just make the program look bad.” The inquiry also uncovered a “Code of Ethical Conduct” statement internal auditors were forced to sign. The statement warned auditors not to use information in a matter that would be “detrimental” to the Lab or the contractor, the University of California.
Another action, deemed “chilling” to reporting of potential derogatory information, was the termination of two security officers, hired expressly to investigate such problems at the Lab. They were fired the same day they were scheduled to be interviewed by Department investigators. The Inspector General termed their firings “incomprehensible.” But Lab officials thought they would get away with it; one told CBS Evening News’ Sharyl Attkisson that if the Lab Director John C. Browne refused to appear on camera, the whole episode would blow over.
Fortunately for the two security officers, the public outcry and pressure from Capitol Hill led to the University of California rehiring the two security officials, at least temporarily. This may not be enough to stave off a full-scale review of the University’s management of Los Alamos. The Energy Secretary has promised to decide whether to put the Lab contract up for rebid by April 30 and Capitol Hill has promised a fresh round of hearings on the University’s management of the nation’s nuclear weapons labs.