Inherent in the work of the weapons laboratories, of course, is the basic tension between scientific inquiry, which thrives on freewheeling searches for and wide dissemination of information, and governmental secrecy, which requires just the opposite. But the historical context in which the labs were created and thrived has also figured into their subsequent problems with security.
AN INTERNATIONAL ENTERPRISE
U.S. research laboratories have always had a tradition of drawing on immigrant talent. Perhaps the first foreign–born contributor to our nation’s nuclear program was Albert Einstein. In his letter to President Roosevelt on August 2, 1939, Einstein advised the President of the possibility of the atomic bomb and the urgent need for government action. By 1943, the ranks of the Manhattan project at Los Alamos, New Mexico were filled with scientists and engineers from Italy (Fermi), Germany (Bethe), Poland (Ulam), Hungary (Wigner, Szilard, Von Neumann, and Teller), Russia (Kistiakovsy) and Austria (Rabi). Indeed, it is possible that the atomic bomb would never have been completed but for immigrant talent, and the diversity of talent applied to the project was hailed at the time as a model of international cooperation. Eleanor Roosevelt, in a 1945 radio address, declared that the development of the atomic bomb by “many minds belonging to different races and different religions sets the pattern for the way in which in the future we may be able to work out our difficulties."2
The role of and reliance on immigrant talent in the United States—particularly at the graduate school and doctoral levels where much of the nation’s research is performed—has increased over the years. From 1975 to 1992, the aging of America’s baby boomers resulted in a decline in the overall size of the college–age population and, unlike other industrialized nations, the U.S. saw a decline in the number of American students receiving science and engineering degrees.3
From the 1950s until 1995, the number of non–U.S. citizens who earned doctorates in scientific and engineering fields from American universities steadily climbed, reaching 27 percent by 1985 and 40 percent by 1995. Two–thirds of those receiving those doctorates in 1995 held temporary residency visas, and Chinese doctoral recipients outnumbered recipients from all other regions combined.4
But the willingness to draw on foreign talent also has meant a greater risk of falling prey to those with foreign allegiances. One of the earliest and most infamous espionage scandals at the nation’s nuclear laboratories was centered on the physicist Klaus Fuchs, a German native and naturalized British citizen who spied on researchers at Los Alamos for the Soviet Union. More recent instances of actual and alleged foreign espionage at the nuclear weapons laboratories are detailed in the Classified Appendix to this report.
As growth of the U.S. talent pool in science and engineering stagnated, and the amount of available talent abroad grew rapidly, the U.S. has had to rely on more foreign–born talent in national scientific research and development programs in order to maintain the best research facilities in the world. At the same time, since the end of the Cold War, DOE has entered into more extensive cooperative programs with foreign nations in efforts to reduce the threats of proliferation and diversion of nuclear weapons material. By June 1990, DOE had entered into 157 bilateral research and development agreements for scientific exchange purposes. Among others, parties to the agreements were the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Soviet bloc nations and countries that posed nuclear proliferation threats.5 In December 1990, a report to the DOE Secretary noted “a high probability of greatly increasing numbers of foreign visits and assignments to DOE facilities in future years.”6 The widening of foreign contacts concurrent with a greater influx of foreign–born talent has raised concerns about security compromises by scientists with foreign allegiances and highlighted the need for special care in implementing formal clearance procedures for involvement in classified work.
BIG, BYZANTINE, AND BEWILDERING BUREAUCRACY
DOE is not one of the federal government’s largest agencies in absolute terms, but its organizational structure is widely regarded as one of the most confusing. That is another legacy of its origins, and it has made the creation, implementation, coordination, and enforcement of consistent policies very difficult over the years.
The effort to develop the atomic bomb was managed through an unlikely collaboration of the Manhattan Engineering District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (hence the name, “the Manhattan Project”) and the University of California—two vastly dissimilar organizations in both culture and mission. The current form of the Department took shape in the first year of the Carter Administration through the merging of more than 40 different government agencies and organizations, an event from which it has arguably never recovered.
The newly created DOE subsumed the Federal Energy Administration, the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), the Federal Power Commission, and components and programs of several other government agencies. Included were the nuclear weapons research laboratories that were part of the ERDA and, formerly, of the Atomic Energy Commission.
Many of these agencies and organizations have continued to operate under the DOE umbrella with the same organizational structure that they had prior to joining the Department.
Even before the new Department was created, concerns were raised about how high the nuclear weapons–related operations would rank among the competing priorities of such a large bureaucracy. A study of the issue completed in the last year of the Ford Administration considered three alternatives: shifting the weapons operations to the Department of Defense, creating a new freestanding agency, or keeping the program within ERDA—the options still being discussed more than 20 years later. As one critic of the DOE plan told The Washington Post, “Under the AEC, weapons was half the program. Under ERDA, it was one–sixth. Under DOE, it will be one–tenth. It isn’t getting the attention it deserves.” Although the proportions cited by that critic would prove to be inaccurate, he accurately spotted the direction of the trend.
During 1978, its first year of operation within the new structure, DOE already had in place more than 9,500 prime contracts and more than 1,800 financial assistance awards, which together were spread among 188 universities and more than 3,200 contractors. And the Department was growing: from 1977 to 1978, grants and contracts with university researchers posted an increase of 22 percent.7
The DOE Management Challenge
- Lead agency for development of national energy resources and technologies.
- Responsible for the largest environmental cleanup effort in history.
- Nuclear energy and weapons research and development.
- Management of special nuclear materials stockpiles.
- Protection of highly sensitive classified and proprietary information against foreign and corporate espionage.
- If included among the Nation’s Fortune 500 firms, would rank in the top 50.
- The fourth largest landowner in the United States.
- Budget of roughly $18 billion comprises close to 3 percent of total discretionary spending at the federal level.
- Employs more than 11,000 Federal employees and more than 100,000 contract employees.
- Owns and manages more than 50 major installations spread across 2.4 million acres and 35 states.
- A diverse workforce of military and civilian personnel; U.S. citizens and foreign nationals; career federal officials and part-time researchers; white collar bureaucrats as well as scientists and engineers specializing in narrow esoteric fields.
- Constituencies include the White House, Congress, the power industry, multinational defense and aerospace corporations, major universities, states and municipalities seeking or monitoring environmental cleanups.
LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY
Depending on the issue at hand, a line worker in a DOE facility might be responsible to DOE headquarters in Washington, a manager in a field office in another state, a private contractor assigned to a DOE project, a research team leader from academia, or a lab director on another floor of the worker’s building. For example, prior to Secretary Richardson’s restructuring initiative earlier this year, a single laboratory, Sandia, was managed or accountable to nine different DOE security organizations.
Last year, after years of reports highlighting the problem of confused lines of authority, DOE was still unable to ensure the effectiveness of security measures because of its inability to hold personnel accountable. A 1998 report lamented that “short of wholesale contract termination, there did not appear to be adequate penalty/reward systems to ensure effective day–to–day security oversight at the contractor level.”8
The problem is not only the diffuse nature of authority and accountability in the Department. It is the dynamic and often informal character of the authority that does exist. The inherently unpredictable outcomes of major experiments, the fluid missions of research teams, the mobility of individual researchers, the internal competition among laboratories, the ebb and flow of the academic community, the setting and onset of project deadlines, the cyclical nature of the federal budgeting process, and the shifting imperatives of energy and security policies dictated from the White House and Congress—all of these dynamic variables contribute to volatility in the Department’s workforce and an inability to give the weapons–related functions the priority they deserved. Newcomers, as a result, have an exceedingly hard time when they are assimilated; incumbents have a hard time in trying to administer consistent policies; and outsiders have a hard time divining departmental performance and which leaders and factions are credible. Such problems are not new to government organizations, but DOE’s accountability vacuum has only exacerbated them.
Management and security problems have recurred so frequently that they have resulted in nonstop reform initiatives, external reviews, and changes in policy direction. As one observer noted in Science magazine in 1994: “Every administration sets up a panel to review the national labs. The problem is that nothing is done.” The constant managerial turnover over the years has generated nearly continuous structural reorganizations and repeated security policy reversals. Over the last dozen years, DOE has averaged some kind of major departmental shake–up every two to three years. During that time, security and counterintelligence responsibilities have been “punted” from one office to the next.
CULTURE AND ATTITUDES
In the course of this inquiry, many officials interviewed by the PFIAB panel cited the scientific culture of the weapons laboratories as a factor that complicates, perhaps even undermines, the ability of the Department to consistently implement its security procedures. Although there seemed to be no universally accepted definition of the culture, nearly everyone agreed that it is distinct and pervasive.
One facet of the culture mentioned more than others is an arrogance borne of the simple fact that nuclear researchers specialize in one of the world’s most advanced, challenging, and esoteric fields of knowledge. Nuclear physicists, by definition, are required to think in literally other dimensions not accessible to laymen. Thus it is not surprising that they might bridle under the restraints and regulations of administrators and bureaucrats who do not entirely comprehend the precise nature of the operation being managed.
Operating within a large, complex bureaucracy with transient leaders would only tend to accentuate a scientist’s sense of intellectual superiority: if administrators have little more than a vague sense of the contours of a research project, they are likely to have little basis to know which rules and regulations constitute unreasonable burdens on the researchers’ activities.
With respect to at least some security issues, the potential for conflicts over priorities is obvious. For example, how are security officials to weigh the risks of unauthorized disclosures during international exchanges if they have only a general familiarity with the cryptic jargon used by the scientists who might participate?
The prevailing culture of the weapons labs is widely perceived as contributing to security and counterintelligence problems. At the very least, restoring public confidence in the ability of the labs to protect nuclear secrets will require a thorough reappraisal of the culture within them.
CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING MISSIONS
The external pressures placed on the Department of Energy in general, and the weapons labs in particular, are also worth noting. For more than 50 years, America’s nuclear researchers have operated in a maelstrom of shifting and often contradictory attitudes. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, nuclear discoveries were simultaneously hailed as a destructive scourge and a panacea for a wide array of mankind’s problems. The production of nuclear arms was regarded during the 1950s and 1960s as one of the best indices of international power and the strength of the nation’s military deterrent.
During the 1970s, the nation’s leadership turned to nuclear researchers for solutions to the energy crisis at the same time that the general public was becoming more alarmed about the nuclear buildup and the environmental implications of nuclear facilities.
Over the past 20 years, some in Congress have repeatedly called for the dissolution of the Department of Energy, which has undoubtedly been a distraction to those trying to make long–term decisions affecting the scope and direction of the research at the labs. And in the aftermath of the Cold War, the Congress has looked to the nation’s nuclear weapons labs to help in stabilizing or dismantling nuclear stockpiles in other nations.
Each time that the nation’s leadership has made a major change in the Department’s priorities or added another mission, it has placed additional pressure on a government agency already struggling to preserve and expand one of its most challenging historical roles: guarantor of the safety, security, and reliability of the nation’s nuclear weapons.
2. Boyer, Paul. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985, p. 138.
3. National Science Foundation, “Science and Engineering Indicators,” 1996.
4. National Science Foundation, “Data Brief,” Vol. 1996, No. 9, August 19, 1999.
5. Classified report.
6. Classified DOE Report.
7. DOE, “Annual Report to Congress, 1978,” April 1979.
8. U.S. Nuclear Command and Control System Support Staff, “Assessment Report: Department of Energy Nuclear Weapons-Related Security Oversight Process,” March 1998.
Back to Report Top Page