Nuclear Secrets and the Culture Wars

Article excerpt



Operation Desert Glow began like clockwork at 0900 on the morning of June 6, 1989. Just outside Denver, Colorado, almost a hundred heavily armed federal agents, including seventy special agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, descended en masse upon the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. FBI Agent Jon Lipsky, whose investigative work led to the creation of Operation Desert Glow, was taking no chances that morning. Rocky Flats' senior managers were gathered inside one of the hundred buildings sprawled over four hundred acres at the Department of Energy complex. The cover story the FBI gave them was that they should all assemble for a briefing on a threat from the environmental extremist group Earth First to carry out a terrorist attack on the plant, which produced plutonium triggers for America's atomic weapons arsenal. The waiting executives were unaware that the agents who were already descending on them would thoroughly search the Rocky Flats facilities for eighteen days, guard it twenty-four hours a day, and gather more than 1o4 boxes of evidence. They didn't know that the innocuous-looking airplane that had flown over the complex on three separate nights six months earlier was operated by the FBI and crammed with infrared surveillance equipment.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Fimberg would later recall how strange it seemed, sitting in the airplane next to Agent Lipsky during the nighttime surveillance flights, to be spying on a U.S. facility in Colorado. Fimberg, a self-described liberal Democrat and environmentalist who had clerked for the Environmental Defense Fund, was an ardent advocate of Lipsky's operation. More than anyone else in the federal government, the two thirty-something friends were responsible for the entire probe. Spurred on by Agent Lipsky, Fimberg would eventually take the fight for criminal prosecutions of those individuals ensnared by Desert Glow to the top levels of the Justice Department.

Operation Desert Glow had been authorized at the highest levels of government. FBI Director William S. Sessions, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, Energy Secretary James D. Watkins, and EPA Administrator William K. Reilly had all sanctioned the massive federal raid on Rocky Flats. But this extraordinary cabinet-level attention was not due to suspicions of foreign espionage at the weapons production facility. The hundred federal agents were sent to Rocky Flats to search for criminal violations of environmental laws. The controversial case Lipsky and Fimberg built around Rocky Flats would consume years of investigative work and vital FBI manpower and still not be fully resolved eight years later, in 1997. U.S. Assistant Attorney Fimberg's grand jury returned criminal indictments against three Department of Energy weapons plant officials and five contract employees. Although Fimberg insisted on prosecuting, Rockwell International-which managed Rocky Flats under contract to DOE-spared the individuals criminal trials by pleading guilty to ten counts of violating federal environmental laws. Rockwell was fined $18.5 million, one of the largest environmental pollution fines in history, second only to the Exxon Valdez case.

The raids at Rocky Flats were deeply ironic. The FBI chose to launch the operation on the forty-fifth anniversary of D-Day's Normandy Invasion, almost as if to herald the end of the World War II Manhattan Project which spawned Rocky Flats and 57 other sites around the country involved in nuclear weapons production and research. Once sites reflecting the nation's scientific ability and advanced technological prowess, by 1989, with the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the start of Velvet Revolutions across central Europe, the nuclear weapons complexes and national research labs came to be viewed in a new light. …