Sunday, February 13, 2005

Domenici's View on NNSA

February 13, 2005

Keeping secrets safe: Is NNSA fulfilling its mission?

Diana Heil | The New Mexican

U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, who fought five years ago for the creation of an agency to protect America's nuclear secrets, now says it should be abolished if it can't do a better job.

In an interview last week, the New Mexico Republican said: "Frankly, I've implied that if they can't shape it up and show that they're doing it right, that maybe they shouldn't exist. That'll be a big shock to read, but that's what I told them."

The National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency within the Department of Energy, was launched in 2000 to correct long-standing management and security problems at nuclear facilities that came to light when classified computer hard drives disappeared and Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee was charged with 59 counts of mishandling nuclear secrets.

Today, with a budget of $700 million plus funding for remote offices, NNSA oversees 11 nuclear-weapons labs and factories.

"There's no question that what we considered to be the things that NNSA should do -- how they should do it, what management scheme they should set up, the kind of personnel slots they should fill -- in our opinion are far less than the law expected," the senator said.

But Bill Desmond, acting associate administrator for defense nuclear security, said his agency overall has an outstanding and robust security program, although there have been ongoing problems at the site office in Los Alamos.

"The NNSA has the best security program in the United States government," he said. And when NNSA makes mistakes, "we don't cover it up."

Desmond admitted NNSA can always do better. But he emphasized: "We have not lost any nuclear weapons. There have been no attacks on our facilities."

Almost since it began, NNSA has had a troubled existence. Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson didn't want it. And U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., feared the agency would make the weapons labs less attractive for science not related to defense.

By 2003, criticism had mounted. The General Accounting Office, a government investigation agency, said management problems at NNSA had slowed the improvement of security at nuclear-weapons labs. "The labs must be like a candy store with the front door left wide open and nobody at the register," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, was quoted as saying.

Last week, Bingaman said he doesn't know whether NNSA has helped resolve security issues at the labs. "Obviously, there have continued to be problems with security at our national labs," Bingaman said. "Whether those are any less significant than they otherwise would have been, I don't know."

There's no good way to measure that, he said.

Meanwhile, Domenici is upset that NNSA has slashed funding for the University of California, which operates the Los Alamos lab for the government. Domenici thinks the university and the lab are not totally responsible for the problems.

"Maybe NNSA ought to investigate its own performance, because it could very well be that they haven't done as good a job as they should, but they don't get any fees, so we couldn't cut their fees," he said.

Jay Coghlan, head of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, a nonprofit group seeking the contract to run LANL, offered a contrary view. "Over the last three years, the two nuclear-weapons labs run by the University of California have had a higher percentage of serious security infractions than Sandia. Given that, the NNSA should be biased against continuing lab management by UC," Coghlan said.

"As to the NNSA," he added, "it was established largely to address security concerns, yet the number of incidents keeps growing under its watch. Congress should hold the NNSA more accountable in nuclear-security matters as that is where the buck really needs to stop."

NNSA isn't the only agency responsible for security oversight at the labs. The General Accounting Office, the Office of the Inspector General and a group of Energy Department inspectors also review security issues.

It is interesting that we never heard any more about the "clerical error" involving accountable materials at the NNSA office in Albuquerque last summer. I suppose NNSA does keep some secrets very well.
Gee, Pete, now you are "upset that NNSA has slashed funding for the University of California, which operates the Los Alamos lab for the government" and you think "the university and the lab are not totally responsible for the problems".

It's about time. Where have you been for the last 7 months? What a sinkhole for money NNSA has been, particularly since its launching was based upon Wen Ho Lee, and we all know the outcome of that investigation. It was certainly humorous to see pictures in the Los Alamos Monitor of the FBI in protective gear searching the County dump for Wen Ho's tapes! And the assumption that someone born in Taiwan would spy for the Red Chinese was a tremendous leap. Another waste of money, an apology by a federal judge, another botched FBI investigation - yet it was LANL's fault.

How about the funding requests that NNSA did not include in the budget that would have helped to prevent the missing barcodes? Why aren't they being held responsible for their decisions?

How about different security rules at LLNL and LANL (we all know who the favorite is)? As an example, at LANL if mail containing classified information is sent out on the unclassified network, it's a security issue. At LLNL, only if that email goes outside LLNL is it a security issue. Now do you really suppose that LLNL is reporting email that goes outside LLNL? And do you really suppose that LLNL even knows if it happens? And why doesn't NNSA insist that both LLNL and LANL follow the same rules - the LANL rules which are more secure? And why doesn't NNSA publicly praise LANL for its more stringent rules?

NNSA wastes too much money trying to defend parts of LANL from truck bombs without any concern for the folks who pass that area on their way to and from their homes in the Jemez and without any regard for the promises made to Los Alamos County to help develop more local businesses that would make the County more self-sufficient by giving them land on the north side of West Jemez Road. Maybe Los Alamos taxpayers should file a suit against DOE/NNSA for breach of contract.

I venture to say that NNSA has spent a lot of time researching the government's treatment of Native Americans and has decided to apply the same principles to LANL and Los Alamos County.

Finally, don't spend time listening to Nuclear Watch of New Mexico. They have one agenda - close LANL and to hell with everyone in northern New Mexico. They are a very vocal minority which is only interested in criticizing LANL at every opportunity. They do not respect anyone whose opinion differs from theirs. They have benefitted from LANL research without giving it any credit.

The bottom line is that problems go much deeper than missing barcodes, a dispute over safety records, etc. The basic problems are the two faced approach from NNSA ("clerical errors in Albuquerque last summer" that didn't make the press like the missing barcodes at LANL), the lack of support of their employess by UC against a Director who believes his job is to teach the employees the ABC's - Arrogant, Butthead, Cowboys - and a lack of support by our Congressional delegation.
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