Security Lapses Bedevil Livermore; Noting a Culture of Lax Security at U.S. Nuclear-Weapons Labs, Energy Secretary Abraham Threatens to Take Their Management Away from the University of California

Article excerpt

Byline: Martin Edwin Andersen, INSIGHT

Egregious security lapses at a University of California (UC) nuclear-weapons lab coming amid stark warnings by the CIA that Osama bin Laden may be planning an attack against just such a target pushed Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's patience with UC's mismanagement and constant denials to the breaking point. "The Energy Department [DOE] views security as the critical responsibility of the national laboratories," Abraham fumed, "and we treat any lapse or failure as significant." Demanding "immediate corrective action," the DOE chief took the unprecedented step of quickly dispatching an elite security team to assess whether the department should take over direct responsibility for security at UC's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), one of the research labs that hold the country's most sensitive nuclear secrets as well as material used to make thermonuclear weapons.

As the team began its probe in early June, a lab insider tells Insight, tensions ran so high "you could hear yelling and screaming" at the meetings held with LLNL officials. Three senior lab-security officials were suspended pending an investigation.

Officially, the primary concerns of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) "tiger team" sent by Abraham to the Livermore site centered on revelations in May concerning the loss in April of a set of still-missing security keys that went unreported to lab senior management for three weeks. A week before the keys disappeared a security officer's access badge also vanished another serious security breach that went unreported to senior lab management for six weeks. The tiger team, including Greg Rudy, DOE's chief of defense nuclear security, and intelligence veteran Greg Padonsky, also was given the task of probing long-standing accusations by LLNL security officials that the assigned special response (SWAT) team is unprepared to defend the lab, located near the populous San Francisco Bay area, against terrorist attack.

"I am disturbed by evidence that other managers in the chain of command have been lax in identifying and reporting potentially serious security problems," said NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks. "That this is occurring in the current atmosphere of heightened security awareness is unacceptable." Adds Peter Stockton, a senior investigator for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a Washington-based advocacy group: "For DOE to say that they may intervene in the lab's security that's a huge slap on the face for Livermore and shows just how angry people are."

Abraham unleashed the tiger team after an unclassified report prepared in May by the CIA's intelligence directorate warned that terrorists may try to use crude nuclear devices against the United States. As reported by the Washington Times, the assessment said that bin Laden's operatives "may try to launch conventional attacks against the nuclear industrial infrastructure of the United States in a bid to cause contamination, disruption and terror."

The security scandal at LLNL, which houses the Nuclear Weapons Information Program believed to be the single most important repository of knowledge about the U.S. nuclear arsenal and its capabilities, weaknesses, developments, strategies and new technologies came on the heels of another long-running scandal involving financial abuses, security concerns and other mismanagement at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the other weapons lab run by the University of California for DOE. Three years ago, computer hard drives containing nuclear secrets were lost at the lab and Chinese-American scientist Wen Ho Lee was accused of espionage before charges were dropped amid claims of prosecutorial misconduct.

In April Abraham announced that the allegations of mismanagement would result in UC's Los Alamos contract being put up for competitive bidding when it expires in 2005. …