What a lucky guy he is...

By Notra Trulock
web posted April 2, 2001

The new Energy Secretary, Spencer Abraham, is a lucky man. He no sooner gets into office then the President announces that we are on the brink of a major energy crisis that could spread throughout the country this summer. Secretary Abraham can blame much of the problem on his predecessors. During the Clinton years, the Energy Department spent most of its efforts on the search for viable energy "renewables", such as solar or wind power. Lots of bucks went into technology development of renewables, with precious little to show. Coupled with too much regulation, too little energy creation, and a preference for environmental protection over the energy needs of the nation, Abraham will get a lot of mileage out of whacking his predecessors. He will be a highly visible player in the formulation of a new, long-term energy strategy. Expect to see a fair amount of him on the talk shows and nightly news.

Spencer Abraham
Abraham

So why is he a lucky man? Because all this attention to the energy crisis distracts the media, Capitol Hill, the public, and yes him, from his other enduring crisis: what to do about the mismanagement and neglect of the needs of our national nuclear deterrent. Several new developments on that front have emerged in recent weeks.

Most ominously, the Washington Times' Bill Gertz has broken yet another story about a breach of computer security at Sandia National Laboratory. Gertz reports that CIA is doing a "damage assessment" and that the breach accessed "sensitive classified information". The culprits: either Russia or China. The government is unlikely to ever tell us what secrets the hackers acquired, but Sandia produces all of the non-nuclear components of our nuclear warheads, especially the safing, arming, fuzing, and firing components. That is, how one actually makes or prevents a nuclear warhead from exploding. Sandia also is the leading lab on the production of "use control" devices, that is the technical safeguards against "unauthorized use" of the warheads. As such, of course, Sandia would have the complete plans and blueprints for all our warheads stored on its computers. A potential opponent's access to this type of information is scary indeed.

Sandia is also a major player in our program for maintaining our warheads without resort to nuclear testing. So, it must also have reams of nuclear test data, diagnostic codes, and so forth. Moreover, a major breach of computer security at Sandia is deeply ironic. Part of Sandia's mission is to ensure the security of our nuclear warheads and nuclear facilities through the development of security technologies and computer software. Sandia has the best "black hatters" in the country, probably the world. Black hatters are the people who test our security systems to uncover vulnerabilities, gaps, and back doors. To think that such a place would itself be vulnerable to an outside computer attack is truly frightening. Haven't heard much about it, though, have you? Maybe such stories are becoming all too commonplace for the media.

The Bush Administration has also signaled that it intends to cut the Energy Department's nonproliferation programs by some $70 million. These programs, including efforts to help the Russians protect their nuclear materials, were among the few accomplishments of the Clinton Administration's policy on Russia. Initiated in 1995, the program was intended to assist the Russians in preventing the leakage of tons of nuclear materials out of the country to Iran, Iraq, or worse, to terrorists. The program had a sunset clause of 2000, but after about 1996 began to fall on hard times. The "first team" left for greener pastures and the programs have suffered accordingly. Protecting Russian nuclear materials took a back seat to protecting jobs at U.S. national labs, like Los Alamos or Livermore. What started as an important project for U.S. national security interests has become just another welfare program for DOE managers and the national laboratories.

It turns out that, for all our efforts and about $500 million in sunk costs, we have managed to lock up only about 7% of the total Russian inventory of fissile material. Even that figure might be suspect as DOE has been notoriously close-mouthed about its "real" accomplishments in this area; we don't know for sure if the Russians are employing our techniques. We strongly suspect that the Russians are unwilling to invest in the "operational and maintenance" costs, which means of course that the U.S. taxpayer will be asked to pony up additional millions.

Another DOE initiative, known as the Nuclear Cities initiative, will be reduced even more dramatically - down by nearly 80%. This initiative was supposed to keep Russian nuclear scientists at home by creating new jobs for them, thus reducing the scientists' incentives to offer their talents to the rogue states. Thus far, this program has been a complete bust. The General Accounting Office found that nearly 63% of these funds were spent in the U.S. at the DOE national labs. In short, the only jobs the program went about saving were those of the U.S. scientists. In short, another welfare program for the DOE labs. Maybe its time to end welfare as our national labs have come to know it.

Meanwhile, the "fix" for all these problems, the newly formed National Nuclear Security Administration, is floundering. Its head, retired Air Force General John Gordon, has a thankless task. Few serious people are interested in positions in the NNSA; insiders report a major hiring crisis has hit the new organization. Senior positions are going begging, mostly because no one with any talent or a shred of integrity wants to work for DOE or the NNSA.

And who can blame them? Just last week, a reorganization of NNSA was announced. The plan was developed by a group of lab bigwigs, done "offsite" with no input from the Feds. Why should any fed want to be part of such an organization knowing full well that he (no "she's" need apply in this part of the DOE world) will be answering to the labs and not the other way around. That is, laboratory managers, who are contractors - either to big defense outfits like Lockheed-Martin or the University of California, run the department. Budgets, strategic plans, priorities are all set out by the labs, not the Feds. Why then should any fed want be to a "manager" in such a place?

So who is staffing these positions now? Why the Clinton holdovers, of course. Rejects from State and Defense, all proponents of the worse of the Clinton policies on the nuclear test ban and sharing our nuclear knowledge with Chinese and Russian nuclear scientists all for the sake of "building confidence", are now flourishing at Energy. Political appointees who have "burrowed in" and federal managers who sacrificed their integrity for the Clinton agenda and got promotions and cash awards in return, usually for looking the other way on security breaches or staggering amounts of waste, fraud and abuse.

All of this goes on under the nose of Secretary Abraham, who probably knows better than to take on the labs. After all, cross the labs and you get to deal with Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) and his colleagues in the house, Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) and Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA), all of whom form the Labs' protection racket on Capitol Hill. Domenici can always be relied upon to leap to the labs' defense, no matter what the transgression. Domenici, et. al., decried the Administration's intention to cut back the wasteful and unaccountable lab welfare programs and he is likely to get much, if not all, of this funding restored. By the way, who can forget Domenici rumbling that the next DOE secretary would be someone with a strong national security background and blaming the Chinese espionage fiasco on the lack of such credentials by Clinton appointees?

Funny, I don't recall him voicing these concerns about Secretary Abraham's national security credentials during Abraham's confirmation hearing. But, like I said, Abraham is a lucky guy.

Notra Trulock is the Director of Media Relations at the Free Congress Foundation.

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