The U.S. Energy Department recently announced a historic decision. It intends to require competitive bidding for the federal contract to manage the trouble-ridden Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The lab, which designed the first U.S. atomic bomb and more than half of the current nuclear arsenal, has been managed by the University of California since 1943. The contract, worth about a billion dollars annually, has been renewed annually without forcing the University to go through a competitive bidding process.
Energy Department officials blamed the University for what they said have been “systematic management failures that came to light in 2002.” These included the lab’s repeated failures to safeguard classified information on its vast computer networks. Lab scientist Wen Ho Lee was able to transfer classified details on 22 U.S. nuclear warheads onto an unclassified computer network and portable computer tapes. This went on for more than a decade undetected by lab security officials.
In 2000, the lab lost four laptop hard drives that contained highly-classified nuclear information. Lab scientists refused to cooperate with an on-going FBI investigation. The hard drives finally reappeared behind a photocopy machine inside a crime area marked off by yellow police tape. The lab pledged to renew its efforts to safeguard classified information. But an Energy Department Inspector General report has recently criticized the lab’s continuing failures to safeguard classified information, especially in laptop computers.
The last straw for many was the lab’s handling of a recent scandal involving allegations of widespread fraud and management coverups. Two lab whistleblowers who played a key role in uncovering the scandal were fired by the lab for their efforts. Lab officials did their best to withhold the story from the media and issued a series of denials that anything was amiss at Los Alamos. Eventually, however, several top senior lab officials, including the director, were forced to step down.
This was due primarily to the reporting of Adam Rankin of the Albuquerque Journal. Rankin’s stories revealed new details about the lab’s efforts to cover up the scandal almost daily. The lab warned its employees about talking to Rankin, but couldn’t deter him from writing the stories. When the story was picked up by CBS News’ Sharyl Attkisson, it finally gained national prominence. The national coverage led to a series of congressional hearings. A full airing of lab misdeeds at these hearings made the decision to compete the contract inevitable.
Rankin’s reporting was in the best style of aggressive investigative journalism. Despite the historic impact of his stories, AIM has recently learned that his coverage of the lab scandals received only an “honorable mention” from the New Mexico Associated Managing Editors. Rankin wasn’t nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. But his work was prized by many lab employees who are grateful for his exposure of the lab’s long-standing abuse of employees and whistleblowers.