Report Finds Declining Morale at Nuclear Weapons Lab "It is not sufficient...simply to guard against the loss of nuclear secrets. We must also promote a strong and vibrant scientific culture at our national laboratories to continue developing the technological advances that secrecy is designed to protect." - Baker-Hamilton report
A review of security policies at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has revealed confusion over authority, responsibility, and communications, as well as frequent, inconsistent and politically-driven changes to procedure, leading to a "widespread lack of a sense of personal responsibility and accountability for security." In the wake of revelations about the temporary disappearance of sensitive Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) computer hard drives at Los Alamos, this September report by former Senator Howard Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton takes a sobering look at the concerns expressed by the scientists working there, their essential role, and the inherent tension between good science and appropriate security. They found that "the combined effects of the Wen Ho Lee affair, the recent fire at LANL, and the continuing swirl around the hard- drive episode have devastated morale and productivity" at the lab.
Their brief (25-page) report, "Science and Security in the Service of the Nation: A review of the security incident involving classified hard drives at Los Alamos National Laboratory," does not seek an explanation for what happened to the hard drives during at least 40 days in May and June when their whereabouts were unknown. Instead, it analyzes the systemic shortcomings in security that may have paved the way for such an incident, highlights the highly-charged atmosphere in which the weapons scientists are now working, and offers some common-sense recommendations to make security policies clearer and more consistent. The report attributes the shortcomings to "a cascade of events and decisions over many years" and overseen by many energy secretaries.
Among the lapses in LANL security identified in the report were inadequate resources for security, confusion over which entities held what responsibilities, rules that were changed frequently "without consultation with the affected employees," unclear lines of command and communication, and insufficient protection of sensitive nuclear information that was concentrated "in highly portable, easily-concealable forms such as small, removable computer disk drives." The report questions the effectiveness of certain recent security enhancements and the value of establishing a "security czar" position outside the line organization. It advocates instead that responsibility and authority for security "be vested in the Administrator" of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). It suggests that the conflicts between science and security can be resolved by "embedding the security mission" within the science programs: "security must be viewed not as a burden levied by outsiders upon laboratory employees, but rather as an integral part of the employees' mission."
While the actual damage - if any - to national security due to the disappearance of the hard drives remains unknown at this time, the report claims that "among the known consequences...the most worrisome is the devastating effect on the morale and productivity of LANL.... The current negative climate is incompatible with the performance of good science." Baker and Hamilton found that the labs' ability to "attract and retain top talent...now stands at serious risk." They also noted "the strong opposition to polygraphy expressed by the scientists at LANL, on philosophical and scientific grounds." (As reported in FYI #135, the FY 2001 DOD authorization bill requires polygraphs of about 5,000 additional employees at the DOE weapons labs.) The authors listened to the scientists, and include a sampling of employee quotes in the report. "In visiting Los Alamos," they say, "we came to understand the very different perspective the scientists there bring to all issues - including security - and view that difference as a source of strength, not weakness. We saw the anger and anxiety there, and it causes us great concern."
The report concludes that "it is reasonable for the Congress and the American people to be assured that our nuclear secrets are safe and well protected. It is reasonable for the LANL employees to be assured that their contributions to the national security are appreciated and that they will be provided a safe and secure environment - politically as well as physically - in which to work. These reasonable expectations can all be met, we believe, if we can move beyond traditional tensions so that science and security reinforce one another in the service of the Nation." A summary of the report's recommendations follows:
I. Organization: Clarify and simplify lines of command and communication; establish clear accountability; reinforce the authority of the NNSA Administrator; formalize the security responsibilities of each entity involved; and strengthen cooperation with Congress.
II. Security Measures and Procedures: Review classifications and procedures, particularly for compendia of nuclear information; implement security upgrades at LANL; utilize advanced technology against growing cyber security threats; consult team members on security procedures for NEST; and adopt or adapt best security practices from other sectors.
III. Personnel Actions: Define security to include "adequate attention to the morale and motivation of laboratory employees;" educate laboratory personnel to reduce tensions between science and security; and eliminate "zero tolerance" policies to reduce "employee fears of undue reprisals."
IV. Resources: Provide adequate resources for the national labs' missions, including the security component; and allocate security resources properly to conventional and cyber threats.
The report is available on the Internet at http://www.fas.org/sgp/library/bakerham.html
Audrey T. Leath