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Thievery At Los Alamos

Round two of congressional hearings into the Los Alamos nuclear lab scandal was held in Washington recently. Recall that investigators have unearthed evidence of widespread fraud, mismanagement and poor security at the troubled New Mexico lab. To date, the scandal has resulted in 17 senior lab officials being fired, demoted, or departing. That is an unprecedented house cleaning at the nation’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory.

This time around, lab officials got to tell their side of the story. They are alleged to have tried to cover up the scandal and then obstruct criminal investigations. They claimed they didn’t do it. They denied any cover-up or obstruction. One defended his actions as nothing more than keeping “lab management in the loop.” He also claimed he was just trying to protect what he said was “ultra-sensitive classified information.” The congressmen were not buying their story, however, and one said it was a panel of denial.

All acknowledged that there were problems with the way the lab managed its property and one said that the lab’s culture had fostered reckless spending. He said that lab employees often treated taxpayer funding as Monopoly money. But all preferred to clean up these problems quietly, when the problems were addressed at all. The lab opted to allow employees to reimburse the lab for falsified vouchers cashed at local casinos, for example, and then quietly resign. Lab whistleblowers, however, considered this to be covering up felony crimes, since federal funds were involved.

The lab officials also tried to justify their dismissal of two lab whistleblowers last fall, when they announced their intention to cooperate with outside investigations. One blamed the two for focusing too heavily on criminal cases at the lab. But another admitted before the hearing that firing them “was the stupidest damn thing in the world.” One congressman said the defense of their action was unsupported by numerous external investigations. Most congressmen continue to believe the firings were retaliatory.

Some of the officials tried to play the race card in their defense. At an earlier hearing, references were made to thievery at Los Alamos “keeping the valley green for years.” At this hearing, the officials tried to interpret that as an ethnic slur to the largely Hispanic population that work at the lab, but live down the hill from the Los Alamos town site. The congressmen and the media ignored the reference.

While the hearings have been covered in the media, the Washington Post and the New York Times have largely ignored the scandal. Post reporters are said to consider it a “California story,” since it also involves the University of California’s management of the lab. Curiously, the Post did run a late wire service story on the hearings that seemed to minimize the scandal. Its headline emphasized the officials’ defense of the lab and said “misdeeds were limited to a few.” This is not a new role for the Post. In recent years, the Post has been quick to play down or dismiss reports of wrongdoing at Los Alamos.