September 24, 1999

September 24, 1999 | Executive Summary on National Security and Defense

Executive Summary: Improving Security at the Department of Energy's Weapons Labs

Inquiries into allegations that the People's Republic of China may have acquired advanced U.S. nuclear weapons technology by illegal means uncovered long-standing security deficiencies at the weapons laboratories under U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) oversight. The revelations led Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson and several Members of Congress to propose ways to enhance lab security.

After hearings this summer, Congress attached a compromise reform proposal as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000. The Administration is contemplating a veto of the bill, arguing that the compromise would do little to rectify outstanding security concerns.

Many proposals for improving security at the labs have been put forth, yet the debate on the Hill was brief and Congress's efforts were limited primarily to proposals that would preserve the status quo. Recommendations ranged from Secretary Richardson's largely administrative approach, which would mean adding another layer of DOE bureaucracy under a new security chief for the labs, to a bolder plan advocated by Senator Rod Grams (R-MN) and Representative Todd Tiahrt (R-KS), which would shut down the DOE and move its responsibilities for oversight and funding of the three key weapons labs to the Department of Defense (DOD).

Congress's preferred compromise would reorganize the labs within the DOE in a way that might do little to enhance security but would preserve the parochial priorities and billions of dollars in funding these labs represent to the states and some congressional districts. The compromise is based on a proposal put forth by Senators Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ), under which oversight of the three key nuclear weapons labs and several related contractor-operated facilities would be placed under a newly created semiautonomous federal entity within the DOE called the National Nuclear Security Administration. This body would have considerable discretion over its own management and to a large extent would operate independently of the DOE by placing limits on the department's involvement with the labs.

Although the sponsors of the amendment contend that this reorganization would improve security, in practice it could diminish federal oversight and perpetuate the third-rate security practices common at the labs by making the lines of responsibility and the chain of command less clear than they are today. Leading experts on government management expressed this concern in recent testimony to Congress.

The compromise would kick lab security responsibilities back to the labs themselves and to the new semiautonomous overseers, and free them from day-to-day DOE oversight. By making this change, Congress would be giving greater control to the very institutions, managers, and employees that were indirectly responsible for the numerous past security breaches documented by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO).

Secretary Richardson objected to this compromise proposal and threatened to secure a presidential veto. In the event this threat is carried out, Congress will have an opportunity to give more thought to security improvements at the labs and, ideally, to craft a more effective piece of legislation.

Even though the DOE receives much of the blame for the security breaches at the labs, the labs are not part of the department and not formally a part of the federal government. They are government-owned, contractor-operated facilities (GOCOs)--independent entities managed by private companies or institutions under contract to the DOE. The record clearly indicates that most of the security problems at the labs involved the labs themselves and reflect years of violations by lab employees, managers, and security forces who are not DOE employees and not subject to its direct supervision.

The effect of this "arms length" contractual arrangement on the department's ability to manage the labs was illustrated recently when Secretary Richardson "recommended" disciplinary action against the three Los Alamos lab employees who were responsible for some of that lab's security failures. The Secretary was limited to "recommending" such disciplinary action because the employees in question worked for the lab's private contractor, not the DOE; thus, they were beyond his direct managerial oversight.

The lengthy record of security problems and the DOE's systematic failure to rectify the long-standing inadequacies at its labs make clear that the labs need more and better oversight, not less. The evidence shows that the labs are no more capable of reforming themselves than is the Department of Energy. Congress should revisit other reform proposals and not rush to reject one over another simply because it is opposed by a White House appointee.

A potential reform would combine elements of the Domenici-Kyl proposal and the Grams-Tiahrt approach. For now, such a reform should remove the three labs from DOE oversight and reorganize what remains as a Cabinet-level department focused on civilian energy issues and the environmental concerns that arise from commercial energy production and use. Oversight of the weapons labs and two other contractor-run facilities that are actively involved in maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be shifted from the DOE to the DOD. The labs would then be under the management of a department that has experience in successfully maintaining high levels of security and for which top-secret status is a day-to-day concern.

Dr. Ronald D. Utt is a Research Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D. Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow