U.S. Nuclear Security Agency Has ‘Failed,’ Says Advisory Panel

U.S. Energy Department security personnel take part in a 2012 exercise. A congressionally convened panel said an Energy Department agency has "failed" in efforts to effectively oversee the U.S. nuclear-weapons complex.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
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Diane Barnes
March 27, 2014, 6:34 a.m.

A con­gres­sion­ally man­dated pan­el says a key En­ergy De­part­ment agency has “failed” in its mis­sion to ef­fect­ively over­see U.S. nuc­le­ar-arms op­er­a­tions.

Drastic re­forms are cru­cial to ad­dress “sys­tem­ic” man­age­ment short­com­ings at the Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, ac­cord­ing to pre­lim­in­ary find­ings un­veiled on Wed­nes­day by the co-chairs of the Ad­vis­ory Pan­el on the Gov­ernance of the Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity En­ter­prise.

“The un­mis­tak­able con­clu­sion of our fact-find­ing is that, as im­ple­men­ted, the ‘NNSA ex­per­i­ment’ in­volving cre­ation of a semi­autonom­ous or­gan­iz­a­tion has failed,” ac­cord­ing to Norm Au­gustine, who headed the bi­par­tis­an group with re­tired Adm. Richard Mies.

“The cur­rent DOE-NNSA struc­ture has not es­tab­lished the ef­fect­ive op­er­a­tion­al sys­tem that Con­gress in­ten­ded,” Au­gustine told the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee in a writ­ten sum­mary of the pan­el’s ini­tial con­clu­sions. “This needs to be fixed as a mat­ter of pri­or­ity, and these fixes will not be simple or quick.”

The former of­fi­cials at­trib­uted the Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s his­tory of high-pro­file se­cur­ity lapses at atom­ic-com­plex fa­cil­it­ies and soar­ing cost over­runs in ma­jor pro­jects to prob­lems that be­came em­bed­ded in the na­tion’s nuc­le­ar weapons cul­ture after the end of the Cold War. Con­gress es­tab­lished the agency in 2000 fol­low­ing the Wen Ho Lee spy scan­dal at Los Alam­os Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory, giv­ing it the re­spons­ib­il­ity to over­see arms activ­it­ies that were pre­vi­ously handled by the En­ergy De­part­ment it­self.

Today, both or­gan­iz­a­tions con­tain “too many people [who] can stop mis­sion-es­sen­tial work for a host of reas­ons,” Mies said in a writ­ten state­ment to the com­mit­tee, provided for a Wed­nes­day hear­ing. He ad­ded that “those who are re­spons­ible for get­ting the work done of­ten find their de­cisions ig­nored or over­turned.”

He also as­ser­ted that a cul­ture of mis­trust has de­veloped between NNSA of­fi­cials and the nuc­le­ar-weapons labor­at­or­ies they over­see.

Au­gustine said nuc­le­ar-arms ef­forts man­aged by both the En­ergy and De­fense de­part­ments have been be­deviled by “com­pla­cency” and a “loss of fo­cus” since the end of the Cold War.

Mies ad­ded that “there is no af­ford­able, ex­ecut­able joint DOD-DOE vis­ion, plan, or pro­gram for the fu­ture of nuc­le­ar-weapons cap­ab­il­it­ies.”

The pan­el’s ini­tial find­ings did not en­dorse any spe­cif­ic plan for al­ter­ing over­sight of the nuc­le­ar-weapons com­plex. The group — man­dated early last year un­der a pro­vi­sion of the fisc­al 2013 Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act — is ex­pec­ted to is­sue its fi­nal re­port this sum­mer.

Past re­form pro­pos­als have in­cluded a Re­pub­lic­an-led push to elim­in­ate En­ergy De­part­ment over­sight of NNSA op­er­a­tions and in­crease con­tract­or in­de­pend­ence. Oth­ers have ad­voc­ated a boost in En­ergy’s over­sight, or to place the atom­ic agency un­der Pentagon con­trol.

Au­gustine said the pres­id­ent and his ad­min­is­tra­tion would shoulder primary re­spons­ib­il­ity for in­sti­tut­ing changes.

“Prob­ably the most im­port­ant in­di­vidu­al un­der today’s or­gan­iz­a­tion is the sec­ret­ary of En­ergy who, in many cases in the past, did not have a back­ground at all with­in this arena,” he said dur­ing the com­mit­tee ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion.

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