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The Media’s Skewed Nuclear Priorities

How predictable was it that just as the Bush administration is closing in on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs, the national media would suddenly “discover” nuclear programs popping up like mushrooms around the world. Most of the media’s nuclear coverage has been devoted to North Korea’s covert nuclear program, its threats to restart its nuclear production reactor, and debates over how long it will take Kim Jong II to construct a nuclear arsenal. There has also been “news” about Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons and, to a lesser extent, Russian and Chinese complicity in these efforts.

Meanwhile, a nuclear scandal has been unfolding inside the U.S. that has generated surprising little national media attention. Once again, the scandal has focused on Los Alamos National Laboratory, but raises troubling questions about the management of the overall U.S. nuclear complex. Unlike other recent nuclear lab scandals, this one has even claimed some casualties beyond the whistleblowers that exposed it in the first place.

This time around, the troubled New Mexico nuclear lab has been rocked by allegations of corruption, high-level cover ups, and even outright thievery. Despite the lab’s best efforts to sweep this all this under the rug, it has led to the resignations of the lab director and his deputy, plus Los Alamos’ top two security officials. Predictably, all four will stay on at the lab, continuing to draw large salaries and enjoy all benefits; nobody other than whistleblowers ever really gets fired anymore, no matter how bad things get.

Equally predictable has been the appointment of an interim director and more promises to “get it right” this time. Pretty soon we will be hearing that the media’s “obsession” with the scandal is harming national security and driving promising young scientists away. Sound familiar? It should, because we’ve heard it all before. Most notably, in 1999 during the Chinese nuclear espionage scandal, and again in 2000 when Los Alamos computer hard drives containing highly sensitive nuclear weapons information disappeared for a few weeks and then mysteriously “reappeared” behind a copying machine, inside an FBI crime scene. Neither one of those scandals resulted in resignations or firings, although this was during the Clinton administration when the standards of unacceptable behavior were pretty low. So this current scandal must be pretty bad.

But this may be just the tip of the iceberg. In late December 2002, the Energy Department’s Inspector General (IG) quietly published the results of an audit on the Department’s management of its foreign visits and assignments program. The report’s main conclusion was that the Department was still not effectively managing the presence of scientists from foreign countries, including “sensitive” ones like China, India, or Iran, at the labs. This should come as a shock to those who remember the scathing criticisms of the Department back in 1999 for its laxity and complacency in coping with the growing threat from foreign intelligence services. The reports were so alarming that Capitol Hill even imposed a short moratorium on such visits to the labs.

The Department and the labs all promised stricter rules and better enforcement of new policies. And yet, at the end of 2002, more than three years later, the IG would uncover still more problems at the labs. This time, auditors found that some labs, like Los Alamos, haven’t bothered to ensure that visiting scientists hold valid passports and current visas. At Brookhaven lab in New York, an Iranian was admitted to the lab before the proper background checks were completed. Iran is on the State Department’s list of states sponsoring terrorism, but this scientist was permitted unfettered access to the site for two months before counterintelligence officers discovered him and ordered him to leave.

Had it not been for a local Albuquerque reporter, Adam Rankin, and Sharyl Attkisson of CBS Evening News, the latest Los Alamos scandal would have quickly disappeared. Coverage in the rest of the national media has been light and perfunctory. Washington Post editors initially dismissed it as “not a Washington story.” It limited its coverage to simply reporting events, usually based on press releases issued by the Department or the labs, and did little investigating on its own. The New York Times did likewise; it wrote exactly one editorial on a U.S. nuclear scandal during this period. But the Times’ editorial was about an environmental problem at a plant in Ohio and not about rampant corruption in our nuclear weapons labs. Lost or compromised nuclear secrets just don’t count for as much as industrial corrosion for the Times.