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Insights from Offsite 2002-1

Nuke Weapons Boss Gets Defensive Over Security

Just Trust Us
Contradictions: Admitting to Deficiencies, Failing to Fail, and Confusion on Risks.
NNSA Strategy: Deny and Disparage

by Don Moniak
(Aiken, SC, January 25, 2002)

On Wednesday the Department of Energy's (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)1 released a one-page statement by NNSA Administrator John Gordon in which he lambasted critics, admitted to past nuclear security deficiencies, and overall provided hard evidence that the NNSA is operating from a bunker mentality.2

The statement was unexpected, uncharacteristic, and obviously provoked by the ongoing war of words between DOE/NNSA and nuclear security critics. The situation escalated this past week week with updates from the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), and peaked Wednesday with a media conference by Representative Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) featuring DOE security whistleblowers.

Until Wednesday the NNSA's media relations featured self-congratulatory fluff that functioned to bore any audience. Of the mere 24 press releases issued by NNSA since June 2000, about one-third of these pertained to personnel issues, while only two of the 24 contain a shred of negative publicity about the complex.3

Just Trust Us

The tone of Administrator Gordon's statement suggests an expectation of respect and credibility based merely on his title and responsibility:

"As the administrator of the NNSA, I am responsible to the Secretary of Energy and the American people for the security of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. I have assessed the security conditions at our sites many times and I personally reviewed our posture immediately following the terrorist attacks in September."

The latter statement referred to Gordon's whirlwind two-day, post-September 11 tour of six of the ten nuclear weapons sites housing NNSA field offices.4 The trip was not only a public relations junket devoid of any substantive analysis or insights--the NNSA failed to acknowledge that the ~10 tonnes of plutonium now at Rocky Flats is not even on its map, the kind of factual omission that plagues the DOE/NNSA's credibility.5

Since that time criticism has mounted while DOE/NNSA remained silent and exploited security concerns to shut down and/or whitewash numerous Department websites. So after years of DOE folks telling us to "just visit our web site," the information portals are greatly diminished or inaccessible.6

The "trust us" approach is credible only when a bureaucracy has earned some trust by being open and candid about its problems. Issuing contradictions and mounting a strategy to deny concerns and to disparage critics marks a return to Cold War tactics.


Contradictions are the hallmark of Administrator Gordon's statement.

Admitting to Deficiencies

According to his statement, things were "riskier" just a few years ago:

"In the mid-1990's, when budgets were severely cut and security was progressively degraded, there was a higher level of risk. Now we aggressively protect our people, facilities, and material, and we display a formidable security posture to potential attackers."

We the public were never notified of this higher level of risk,7 and the notion that aggressive protection is "now" and "not then" is not only false but is an unnecessary and hypocritical potshot at his predecessors. Nor would we be notified of such a risk today as this would be construed as a threat to national security.

Overall this tactic is mere DOE tradition, a ploy to divert concerns upon past practices, and contradicted by an October 17, 2000 NNSA news release that refers to security concerns at the weapon labs.8 Security was a problem in 2000, and if it was riskier in the "mid-1990's" then common sense says the risk is higher today than anybody is admitting.

Failing to Fail?

On the one hand, Gordon stated:

"Charges that there is a fifty percent failure rate in our security tests are simply untrue."

Three paragraphs later he stated:

"Our forces are well-trained and well-equipped. They are tested by outside challengers, often to failure - so we know where weaknesses are. Then we fix the problem."

Here is another vague and confusing admission to the books. How "often" are they tested to failure? How often do these failure tests fail to produce failures? If there is a fifty percent failure rate, or a thirty percent failure rate, are these the results of being tested to failure?

Confusion on Risks

On the one hand, Administrator Gordon admits risks were higher back in the last decade, century, and millennium (leading me to wonder how long it will take for bureaucrats will point to past mistakes as "20th Century Mistakes") and also describes critics as presenting a situation "grossly disproportionate to the risks to the public."

Three paragraphs later, he dares to state there is no risk:

"Nuclear material is not at risk at Department of Energy facilities."

Of course it is at risk. That is why there are guards and constant monitoring.

NNSA Strategy: Deny and Disparage

Most disturbing is the strategy to deny and disparage:

"As is often the case in 'reports' such as the one from POGO, the use of outdated data contributes to misleading conclusions."

"While we welcome serious inquiries into the Department's security practices, it is unfortunate that some try to create a climate of fear grossly disproportionate to the risks to the public. Such unfounded allegations are a disservice to the communities that are home to our national defense facilities."

There are some difficulties with the POGO report,9 but it is a serious inquiry into security practices that contains very recent data. The fact is that in the area of safeguards and security, there is no data available to the public that is not outdated, nor will there be much. If an agency like the General Accounting Office discovers grave security risks, we will never know until well after the fact.

The NNSA approach defies common sense and insults the public. It is reminiscent of a claim made by the former Sheriff of Randall County, Texas at a March 1999 public meeting regarding a new county jail. Sheriff Hooks claimed that prisons made for safer neighborhoods because of increased police presence. At the time I happened to live within shooting distance of the existing county prison, and was comfortable with its size and location but had experienced the risks of being that close in May 1997 when a violent offender escaped custody and ended up on our block. When I cited this this escape as an objection to the Sheriff's inane logic, he claimed that the felon had escaped custody, not the jail. There was laughter in the audience, just as many people will laugh at Administrator Gordon's pleas to trust the Department of Energy's security posture because the critics are concerned with twentieth century practices.

A debate on nuclear security is going to happen and is happening. The NNSA can stay in its rhetorical foxhole or it can participate and work towards solutions.



3 For a list of news releases see:

4 features a map of the field offices. General Gordon visited Pantex, Los Alamos, Sandia, Savannah River Site, Kansas City Plant (which is responsible for non-nuclear weapon parts), Y-12/Oak Ridge; and did not visit the Nevada Test Site, Lawrence Livermore, or the Naval Reactor facilities at Pittsburgh and Schenectady.


for more info on status of DOE websites

7 An inquiry to the NNSA by BREDL as to whether this was an acceptable risk at the time has yet to be answered.

8 The news release stated that Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson "was sharply critical of their failure to bring the same degree of [scientific] expertise to the management of security and operations." See: Secretary Richardson Accepts Recommendations for Improving Security at Nuclear Weapons Laboratories October 17, 2000 at

The report is a compilation of many other reports but fails to give much credit to other investigators. The writers also took the unusual approach of citing the download dates of their Internet citations, most of them post-September 11th, . a tactic that puts other NGOs on the spot. For example: - Downloaded September 13, 2001. POGO also wrote to Secretary of Energy Abraham to claim that "sensitive" information and maps were on DOE websites, a tactic that provided DOE with some measure of cover for whitewashing its sites. As it turns out, the information cited as sensitive was common knowledge such as plutonium stored in Zone 4 at Pantex and in Building 371 at Rocky Flats.