U.S. ignored warnings about lax security at nuclear labs for 19 years, GAO finds

Energy Department once could not account for 10,000 sensitive records

April 20, 1999

WASHINGTON -- The Energy Department for nearly 20 years ignored warnings about security risks at nuclear weapons laboratories as dangers "languished for years without resolution or repercussions" against responsible officials, congressional investigators conclude in a scathing report.

With the laboratories under heightened scrutiny because of allegations that China stole nuclear weapons secrets, the General Accounting Office documented its warnings in 32 reports over the past 19 years, listing nearly 50 recommendations it claimed were mostly neglected.

"Managers and contractors have shown a lack of attention and/or priority to security matters," according to testimony prepared for a House Commerce Committee hearing today.

In the testimony, Victor S. Rezendes, director of the GAO division that studies energy and scientific issues, said the Energy Department recently brought in the FBI to assist with counterintelligence.

FBI left frustrated

FBI agents had been brought in a decade ago for similar help but left in the early 1990s "because of resistance within DOE to implementing the measures the FBI staff believed necessary to improve security," reported the GAO, the congressional investigative arm.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said yesterday the department is taking "very aggressive steps" to fix the problems listed by the GAO, including:

Increasing the counterintelligence budget from $2.6 million to $39.2 million since 1995.

Appointing Ed Curran, a CIA and FBI veteran, as director of counterintelligence.

Placing seasoned counterintelligence professionals at nuclear weapons laboratories.

Starting a new lie detector program.

Revamping the foreign visitors' program.

"Since taking over as secretary of energy [in August 1998], nothing has been more important to me than ensuring that the security and counterintelligence capabilities of the department are top-notch," Richardson said.

Panel chairman skeptical

Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Commerce Committee, said he wanted to see "whether the administration's announced reforms will truly do the job, but if history is any guide, I have my doubts."

Rezendes said the most serious problems that were not addressed by the department over the past 19 years were:

Ineffective controls over foreign visitors to the most sensitive Energy Department facilities. In 1988 and again in 1997, the GAO found "that foreign visitors are allowed into nuclear weapons design laboratories with few background checks" and that counterintelligence programs "received little priority and attention."

Weaknesses in efforts to control and protect classified and sensitive information.

In one instance, a facility could not account for 10,000 classified documents.

Lack of physical security such as fences, and security personnel who, through the years, have proved unable to demonstrate basic skills such as arresting intruders, shooting accurately or using handcuffs.

Backlogs in security clearances. And at times when backlogs were reduced, contractors were failing to verify background information on prospective employees.

A failure to track and control nuclear materials, including material sent overseas.

"Efforts to address security problems have languished for years without resolution or repercussions to those organizations responsible," the investigators reported.

Warhead data stolen

Earlier this year, the Energy Department disclosed that it had evidence indicating China obtained information about the most advanced U.S. nuclear warhead and had used that information to develop its own smaller, more deliverable nuclear weapons.

An employee at the the national laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M., was fired, but no charges have been filed against him.

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