Whistleblowers have revealed a new scandal at the nation’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory. As first reported in Energy Daily, unidentified whistleblowers have charged Los Alamos National Laboratory officials with covering up “major criminal activity” at the scandal-plagued New Mexico lab. On the basis of these allegations, the FBI has opened a full field investigation on two employees and are questioning senior lab officials.
The two, whose salaries are reportedly $150,000 and $74,000 respectively, are alleged to have stolen government property worth over $50,000. Lab officials now say that the two made a series of “unallowable purchases” in a buying spree that began in July 2001 and continued into late October 2002. Among the unauthorized purchases: CB radios; camping gear; handheld land and maritime GPS units; television/VCR sets; automatic gate-openers; clothing; Oakey sunglasses; motorcycle helmets; and automotive parts. One purchase invoice documented a one-time delivery of 135 speciality knives. Affidavits submitted by the FBI claim that a number of these items are plainly visible at the homes of the two employees.
The whistleblowers say that these “unallowable purchases” are only two of more than 70 cases of “major criminal activity” at the lab. They cite other lab employees as using government cards and purchase vouchers to buy jewelry, golf clubs and a Ford Mustang. The employee alleged to have purchased the Mustang has a recorded message on her voice mail saying that she will be out of the office “for an extended period.”
The two named in the FBI’s search warrants hold the nation’s highest security and intelligence clearances and were, until recently, employed in the Lab’s Nonproliferation and International Security Division. That division houses the lab’s intelligence program and other highly sensitive national security activities. The two are alleged to have been storing their loot in bunkers at the far southwestern boundary of the lab, where scientists have recently been developing bio-warfare agent detectors. The Energy Department has thus far refused to comment on the record. One senior official, who requested anonymity, said that espionage has been ruled out.
The whistleblowers charge senior Los Alamos officials with covering up these criminal activities. AIM has learned that the lab unit housing the two employees, named in the search warrants, was transferred out of the national security division on October 1, as the scandal was unfolding. Among the unanswered questions is how the 15-month buying spree escaped detection. But the whistleblowers say that one of the targeted employees gave “presents” to other lab officials, including one in the Assessments and Audits Division, which is supposed to investigate allegations of waste, fraud and abuse. That employee, who has also been transferred, has not returned phone calls or email messages.
Finally, the whistleblowers allege that the lab has refused to cooperate with the FBI or the New Mexico U.S. Attorney’s office, and name two senior lab officers who ordered security personnel not to contact the Bureau. Lab officials refused to comment on any aspect of the case, citing the FBI’s on-going investigation. Doug Belden, an FBI Albuquerque Field Office spokesman, artfully told AIM that the Bureau had “encountered no interference that impeded the investigation in any significant way.”
This new scandal comes on the heels of the 1999 Chinese nuclear-espionage debacle and the 2000 disappearance of computer hard-drives containing classified nuclear-weapons and intelligence data at Los Alamos. The hard-drives mysteriously “reappeared” behind a copy machine inside a taped-off FBI crime scene. Congressional pressure, mostly from New Mexico senator and lab patron Pete Domenici, forced the FBI to abandon its investigation of the missing hard-drives.
Government reports have repeatedly detailed lax security procedures and a staggering lack of accountability within the Energy Department’s national laboratories. Earlier this year, yet another blue-ribbon commission found that continuing management dysfunction within the Department is imperiling both science and security throughout the labs, despite the reforms of recent years. The commission charged that the department has yet to implement risk-based security management practices and that its “tools and technologies” for security and counterintelligence are “woefully inadequate.” It said that cyber-security remains the labs’ most significant vulnerability. This latter finding comes two years after Wen Ho Lee committed what a federal investigation labeled one of the greatest security breaches in the nation’s history by storing over 800 megabytes of classified nuclear-weapons secrets on an unclassified Los Alamos computer network and tapes. The tapes have never been recovered. The commission’s report was dead on arrival at the Energy Department.