Science at Its Best, Security at Its Worst

Long the subject of reform proposals, the Department of Energy (DOE), which was created in 1977 by merging the Atomic Energy Commission with several other energy-related agencies, may finally be headed for reorganization in the wake of allegations of widespread nuclear espionage at U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories. According to a report released in May by a select congressional committee chaired by Representative Christopher Cox (R-CA), the Energy Department's security and counterintelligence apparatus is completely inadequate, making it possible for China to acquire classified information on seven types of U.S. nuclear warheads.

In response to the Cox Report, President Clinton asked former Senator Warren Rudman, chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, to convene a special investigative panel to assess the security at DOE's nuclear weapons labs and review the improvements made by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson under a February 1998 presidential order. The panel, which included Rudman, Ann Caracristi, Dr. Sidney Drell, and Stephen Friedman, worked for 90 days and presented its findings to the president and Richardson on June 13. Its 71-page report was made available to the public the next day.

The report, titled "Science at Its Best, Security at Its Worst," concluded that DOE suffers from a wealth of "cultural, structural and historical problems" that preclude proper security precautions. It also noted that past attempts at reform had failed and that recent attempts at reform have been resisted, even in the face of great political pressure. The report's central recommendation was therefore that the responsibility for nuclear weapons research and stockpile management be wholly vested in a new semi-autonomous organization. Since the release of his panel's report, Rudman has testified before several Congressional committees that are considering legislation to do just that. (See story.) The following is the unabridged text of the Rudman Report's "Findings."

On March 18, 1999, President Clinton tasked the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board to review the history of the security and counterintelligence threats to the nation's weapons labs and the effectiveness of the responses by the U.S. government. He also asked the Board to propose further improvements.

This report, based on reviews of hundreds of source documents and studies, analysis of intelligence reports, and scores of interviews with senior level officials from several administrations, was prepared over the past 90 days in fulfillment of the President's request.


Bottom Line

Our bottom line: DOE represents the best of America's scientific talent and achievement, but it has also been responsible for the worst security record on secrecy that the members of this panel have ever encountered.

The national labs of the Department of Energy are among the crown jewels of the world's government-sponsored scientific research and development organizations. With its record as the incubator for the work of many talented scientists and engineers—including many Nobel prize winners—it has provided the nation with far-reaching advantages. Its discoveries not only helped the United States to prevail in the Cold War, they will undoubtedly provide both technological benefits and inspiration for the progress of generations to come. Its vibrancy is derived to a great extent from its ability to attract talent from the widest possible pool, and it should continue to capitalize on the expertise of immigrant scientists and engineers. However, the Department has devoted far too little time, attention, and resources to the prosaic but grave responsibilities of security and counterintelligence in managing its weapons and other national security programs.



The preponderance of evidence accumulated by the Special Investigative Panel, spanning the past 25 years, has compelled the members to reach many definite conclusions—some very disturbing—about the security and well-being of the nation's weapons laboratories.

As the repository of America's most advanced know-how in nuclear and related armaments and the home of some of America's finest scientific minds, these labs have been and will continue to be a major target of foreign intelligence services, friendly as well as hostile. Two landmark events, the end of the Cold War and the overwhelming victory of the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf War, markedly altered the security equations and outlooks of nations throughout the world. Friends and foes of the United States intensified their efforts to close the technological gap between their forces and those of America, and some redoubled their efforts in the race for weapons of mass destruction. Under the restraints imposed by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, powerful computers have replaced detonations as the best available means of testing the viability and performance capabilities of new nuclear weapons. So research done by U.S. weapons laboratories with high performance computers stands particularly high on the espionage hit list of other nations, many of which have used increasingly more sophisticated and diverse means to obtain the secrets necessary to join the nuclear club.

More than 25 years worth of reports, studies and formal inquiries—by executive branch agencies, Congress, independent panels, and even DOE itself—have identified a multitude of chronic security and counterintelligence problems at all of the weapons labs. These reviews produced scores of stern, almost pleading, entreaties for change. Critical security flaws—in management and planning, personnel assurance, some physical security areas, control of nuclear materials, protection of documents and computerized information, and counterintelligence—have been cited for immediate attention and resolution…over and over and over…ad nauseam.

The open-source information alone on the weapons laboratories overwhelmingly supports a troubling conclusion: their security and counterintelligence operations have been seriously hobbled and relegated to low-priority status for decades. The candid, closed-door testimony of current and former federal officials as well as the content of voluminous classified materials received by this panel in recent weeks reinforce this conclusion. When it comes to a genuine understanding of and appreciation for the value of security and counterintelligence programs, especially in the context of America's nuclear arsenal and secrets, the DOE and its weapons labs have been Pollyannaish. The predominant attitude toward security and counterintelligence among many DOE and lab managers has ranged from half-hearted, grudging accommodation to smug disregard. Thus the panel is convinced that the potential for major leaks and thefts of sensitive information and material has been substantial. Moreover, such security lapses would have occurred in bureaucratic environments that would have allowed them to go undetected with relative ease.

Organizational disarray, managerial neglect, and a culture of arrogance—both at DOE headquarters and the labs themselves—conspired to create an espionage scandal waiting to happen. The physical security efforts of the weapons labs (often called the "guns, guards, and gates") have had some isolated shortcomings, but on balance they have developed some of the most advanced security technology in the world. However, perpetually weak systems of personnel assurance, information security, and counterintelligence have invited attack by foreign intelligence services. Among the defects this panel found:

  • Inefficient personnel clearance programs, wherein haphazard background investigations could take years to complete and the backlogs numbered in the tens of thousands.
  • Loosely controlled and casually monitored programs for thousands of unauthorized foreign scientists and assignees—despite more than a decade of critical reports from the General Accounting Office, the DOE Inspector General, and the intelligence community. This practice occasionally created bizarre circumstances in which regular lab employees with security clearances were supervised by foreign nationals on temporary assignment.
  • Feckless systems for control of classified documents, which periodically resulted in thousands of documents being declared lost.
  • Counterintelligence programs with part-time CI officers, who often operated with little experience, minimal budgets, and employed little more than crude "awareness" briefings of foreign threats and perfunctory and sporadic debriefings of scientists travelling to foreign countries.
  • A lab security management reporting system that led everywhere but to responsible authority.
  • Computer security methods that were naive at best and dangerously irresponsible at worst.

Why were these problems so blatantly and repeatedly ignored? DOE has had a dysfunctional management structure and culture that only occasionally gave proper credence to the need for rigorous security and counterintelligence programs at the weapons labs. For starters, there has been a persisting lack of real leadership and effective management at DOE.

The nature of the intelligence-gathering methods used by the People's Republic of China poses a special challenge to the U.S. in general and the weapons labs in particular. More sophisticated than some of the blatant methods employed by the former Soviet bloc espionage services, PRC intelligence operatives know their strong suits and play them extremely well. Increasingly more nimble, discreet and transparent in their spying methods, the Chinese services have become very proficient in the art of seemingly innocuous elicitations of information. This modus operandi has proved very effective against unwitting and ill-prepared DOE personnel.

Despite widely publicized assertions of wholesale losses of nuclear weapons technology from specific laboratories to particular nations, the factual record in the majority of cases regarding the DOE weapons laboratories supports plausible inferences—but not irrefutable proof—about the source and scope of espionage and the channels through which recipient nations received information. The panel was not charged, nor was it empowered, to conduct a technical assessment regarding the extent to which alleged losses at the national weapons laboratories may have directly advanced the weapons development programs of other nations. However, the panel did find these allegations to be germane to issues regarding the structure and effectiveness of DOE security programs, particularly the counterintelligence functions.

The classified and unclassified evidence available to the panel, while pointing out systemic security vulnerabilities, falls short of being conclusive. The actual damage done to U.S. security interests is, at the least, currently unknown; at worst, it may be unknowable. Numerous variables are inescapable. Analysis of indigenous technology development in foreign research laboratories is fraught with uncertainty. Moreover, a nation that is a recipient of classified information is not always the sponsor of the espionage by which it was obtained. However, the panel does concur, on balance, with the findings of the recent DCI-sponsored damage assessment. We also concur with the findings of the subsequent independent review, led by retired Admiral David Jeremiah, of that damage assessment.

The Department of Energy is a dysfunctional bureaucracy that has proven it is incapable of reforming itself. Accountability at DOE has been spread so thinly and erratically that it is now almost impossible to find. The long traditional and effective method of entrenched DOE and lab bureaucrats is to defeat security reform initiatives by waiting them out. They have been helped in this regard by the frequent changes in leadership at the highest levels of DOE—nine Secretaries of Energy in 22 years. Eventually, the reform-minded management transitions out, either due to a change in administrations or as a result of the traditional "revolving door" management practices at DOE. Then the bureaucracy reverts to old priorities and predilections. Such was the case in December 1990 with the reform recommendations carefully crafted by a special task force commissioned by then-Energy Secretary Watkins. The report skewered DOE for unacceptable "direction, coordination, conduct, and oversight" of safeguards and security. Two years later, the new administration rolled in, redefined priorities, and the initiatives all but evaporated. Deputy Secretary Charles Curtis in late 1996 investigated clear indications of serious security and CI problems and drew up a list of initiatives in response. Those initiatives also were dropped after he left office.

Reorganization is clearly warranted to resolve the many specific problems with security and counterintelligence in the weapons laboratories, but also to address the lack of accountability that has become endemic throughout the entire Department. Layer upon layer of bureaucracy, accumulated over the years, has diffused responsibility to the point where scores claim it, no one has enough to make a difference, and all fight for more. Convoluted, confusing, and often contradictory reporting channels make the relationship between DOE headquarters and the labs, in particular, tense, internecine, and chaotic. In between the headquarters and the laboratories are field offices, which the panel found to be a locus of much confusion. In background briefings of the panel, senior DOE officials often described them as redundant operations that function as a shadow headquarters, often using their political clout and large payrolls to push their own agendas and budget priorities in Congress. Even with the latest DOE restructuring, the weapons labs are reporting to far too many DOE masters.

The criteria for the selection of Energy Secretaries have been inconsistent in the past. Regardless of the outcome of ongoing or contemplated reforms, the minimum qualifications for an Energy Secretary should include experience in not only energy and scientific issues, but national security and intelligence issues as well. The list of former Secretaries, Deputy Secretaries, and Under Secretaries meeting all of these criteria is very short. Despite having a large proportion of its budget (roughly 30 percent) devoted to functions related to nuclear weapons, the Department of Energy has often been led by men and women with little expertise and background in national security. The result has been predictable: security issues have been a low priority, and leaders unfamiliar with these issues have delegated decisionmaking to lesser-ranking officials who lacked the incentives and authority to address problems with dispatch and forcefulness. For a Department in desperate need of strong leadership on security issues, this has been a disastrous trend. The bar for future nominees at the upper levels of the Department needs to be raised significantly.

DOE cannot be fixed with a single legislative act: management must follow mandate. The research functions of the labs are vital to the nation's long term interest, and instituting effective gates between weapons and nonweapons research functions will require both disinterested scientific expertise, judicious decisionmaking, and considerable political finesse. Thus both Congress and the executive branch—whether along the lines suggested by the Special Investigative Panel or others—should be prepared to monitor the progress of the Department's reforms for years to come. This panel has no illusions about the future of security and counterintelligence at DOE. There is little reason to believe future DOE Secretaries will necessarily share the resolve of Secretary Richardson, or even his interest. When the next Secretary of Energy is sworn in, perhaps in the spring of 2001, the DOE and lab bureaucracies will still have advantages that could give them the upper hand: time and proven skills at artful dodging and passive intransigence.

The Foreign Visitors' and Assignments Program has been and should continue to be a valuable contribution to the scientific and technological progress of the nation. Foreign nationals working under the auspices of U.S. weapons labs have achieved remarkable scientific advances and contributed immensely to a wide array of America's national security interests, including nonproliferation. Some have made contributions so unique that they are all but irreplaceable. The value of these contacts to the nation should not be lost amid the attempt to address deep, well-founded concerns about security lapses. That said, DOE clearly requires measures to ensure that legitimate use of the research laboratories for scientific collaboration is not an open door to foreign espionage agents. Losing national security secrets should never be accepted as an inevitable cost of obtaining scientific knowledge.

In commenting on security issues at DOE, we believe that both Congressional and Executive Branch leaders have resorted to simplification and hyperbole in the past few months. The panel found neither the dramatic damage assessments nor the categorical reassurances of the Department's advocates to be wholly substantiated. We concur with and encourage many of Secretary Richardson's recent initiatives to address the security problems at the Department, and we are heartened by his aggressive approach and command of the issues. He has recognized the organizational dysfunction and cultural vagaries at DOE and taken strong, positive steps to try to reverse the legacy of more than 20 years of security mismanagement. However, the Board is extremely skeptical that any reform effort, no matter how well-intentioned, well-designed, and effectively applied, will gain more than a toehold at DOE, given its labyrinthine management structure, fractious and arrogant culture, and the fast-approaching reality of another transition in DOE leadership. Thus we believe that he has overstated the case when he asserts, as he did several weeks ago, that "Americans can be reassured: our nation's nuclear secrets are, today, safe and secure."

Similarly, the evidence indicating widespread security vulnerabilities at the weapons laboratories has been ignored for far too long, and the work of the Cox Committee and intelligence officials at the Department has been invaluable in gaining the attention of the American public and in helping focus the political will necessary to resolve these problems. Nonetheless, there have been many attempts to take the valuable coin of damaging new information and decrease its value by manufacturing its counterfeit, innuendo; possible damage has been minted as probable disaster; workaday delay and bureaucratic confusion have been cast as diabolical conspiracies. Enough is enough.

Fundamental change in DOE's institutional culture—including the ingrained attitudes toward security among personnel of the weapons laboratories—will be just as important as organizational redesign. Never have the members of the Special Investigative Panel witnessed a bureaucratic culture so thoroughly saturated with cynicism and disregard for authority. Never before has this panel found such a cavalier attitude toward one of the most serious responsibilities in the federal government—control of the design information relating to nuclear weapons. Particularly egregious have been the failures to enforce cyber-security measures to protect and control important nuclear weapons design information. Never before has the panel found an agency with the bureaucratic insolence to dispute, delay, and resist implementation of a Presidential directive on security, as DOE's bureaucracy tried to do to the Presidential Decision Directive No. 61 in February 1998.

The best nuclear weapons expertise in the U.S. government resides at the national weapons labs, and this asset should be better used by the intelligence community. For years, the PFIAB has been keen on honing the intelligence community's analytic effectiveness on a wide array of nonproliferation areas, including nuclear weapons. We believe that the DOE Office of Intelligence, particularly its analytic component, has historically been an impediment to this goal because of its ineffective attempts to manage the labs' analysis. The office's mission and size (about 70 people) is totally out of step with the Department's intelligence needs. A streamlined intelligence liaison body, much like Department of Treasury's Office of Intelligence Support—which numbers about 20 people, including a 24-hour watch team—would be far more appropriate. It should concentrate on making the intelligence community, which has the preponderance of overall analytic experience, more effective in fulfilling the DOE's analysis and collection requirements.