Chronic Insecurity: Three Case Studies
January 13, 2002

The Project on Government Oversight investigates, exposes, and seeks to remedy systemic abuses of power, mismanagement, and subservience by the federal government to powerful special interests.

The following is an edited excerpt from “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Security At Risk” by the Project On Government Oversight. See POGO’s Web site for the full text of this excerpt and the entire report.

Three case studies provide an insight into how the [Department of Energy’s security] system has failed: the plant at Rocky Flats, outside of Denver, Colorado; Technical Area-18 (TA-18) at Los Alamos, New Mexico; and the Transportation Security Division, which travels the United States interstate highways. The repetition of problems in these case studies should make it clear that these problems are systemic, constant and recurring.

Rocky Flats

Rocky Flats, outside Denver, Colorado, was a major weapons production facility during the Cold War where the plutonium parts for nuclear weapons were milled and fabricated. Tens of tons of plutonium [PU] as well as uranium [HEU] are stored at Rocky Flats. DOE is currently in the process of shutting down the plant and de-inventorying — sending the PU to Savannah River and the HEU to Oak Ridge. Currently, there are still large quantities of Special Nuclear Materials (SNM) at Rocky Flats that are attractive to terrorists. Wackenhut Security, a private security firm, supplies the protective force. Kaiser-Hill LLC is the prime contractor managing Rocky Flats.

In 1992, members of the Wackenhut security force were upset because they argued federal oversight was too overzealous. This tension between federal overseers and the contractor is highly unusual in the DOE complex. In a July 16, 1992 letter to Terry Vaeth, DOE Manager at Rocky Flats, Timothy P. Cole, President of Wackenhut Services Incorporated stated, after taking over security at the site in July 1990:

“During our first few months we were racing to prepare for an upcoming DOE OSE Inspection and Evaluation. Further, the plant mission was undergoing intense scrutiny based on safety and environmental concerns. Those priority issues coupled with fundamental security needs put us in a position of vulnerability from a performance measurement standpoint. There weren’t enough hours in the day. The Protective Force supervisory ranks and the number of cleared, trained Security Inspectors were inadequate for accomplishment of the security mission …

“The purpose is not to make excuses, explain away, or otherwise disclaim our performance deficiencies. We have privately and publicly accepted responsibility for all of our actions and stepped up to problems and emphasized corrective actions rather than arguing the issues….

“I must tell you very frankly that we have been exposed to ‘management terrorism’ and ‘organizational sedition’ for well over a year….

“The DOE management oversight process at RFO [Rocky Flats Office] is, in my opinion, heavily slanted toward the negative to include specific ‘targeting’ of people in management as well as individual members of the Protective Force.”

As even Cole acknowledged, Wackenhut was having trouble performing some basic security duties. For example, according to sources, in a surprise security test at that time, federal security overseers passed through a secured entrance with a pistol in a coffee can — an obvious breach of security.

Wackenhut President Timothy Cole’s letter warned Rocky Flats federal security officials, “The distrust, doubt and fear our Security Inspectors have for certain DOE officials is unhealthy and may lead to serious consequences.” (Emphasis added.) The federal Director of Security was removed, and Wackenhut retained their contract….

In 1997, unauthorized taped phone calls with DOE Headquarters Director of Security Col. Edward McCallum by Wackenhut whistleblower Jeff Peters revealed McCallum’s concern that terrorists could gain access to large quantities of plutonium and cause a sizable nuclear detonation. McCallum stated, “I’ve said in front of the Deputy Secretary and people at that level, I think the citizens, the employees at the plant, and the citizens of Colorado are at extremely high risk for no reason.” These concerns were first raised in 1995 — two years earlier — yet they had remained unresolved….

Several whistleblowers attended a summer 1998 briefing of all DOE Security Directors at Savannah River Site near Aiken, SC, by a Navy Captain regarding force-on-force drills conducted by the Navy SEALs at Rocky Flats. During the tests, the SEALs successfully entered the site through the perimeter fence, getting into a nearby building, and “stealing” a significant quantity of plutonium, exiting the building, getting out through the fence and escaping without being caught. After this embarrassment, for the next two force-on-force tests, Rocky Flats management “over controlled” and demanded that the SEALs could not go through the same hole from which they came in — they had to take the plutonium and climb a guard tower and rope it over the fence. (Of course, real terrorists could have just thrown it over the fence.) In these two contrived tests, the protective force successfully defended the facility. According to the whistleblowers, the SEAL Captain announced he would never waste the time of the SEALs coming back to a DOE site, because the tests were unrealistic.

In July 1999, then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson sent a security team to Rocky Flats. Two glaring vulnerabilities were found, strikingly similar to those found in 1995 and again in 1997. Rocky Flats management vehemently denied the team’s accusation that plutonium was kept out of the vault without additional protective forces in place, as is required. Several hours later in the meeting, they finally admitted they had plutonium out of the vault in a high-risk situation eight hours a day, five days a week. The significance of this dangerous practice was highlighted when, according to security team members, only a few weeks earlier an employee had walked out of a key security door setting off the alarm — yet the protective force could never find the employee. Because the PU was inadequately protected, the employee could have taken some of it, walked out and thrown it over the fence — never to be discovered.

Also according to sources, the security team found the vehicle barrier on the wrong fence. A vehicle barrier is a heavy steel cable — strong enough to stop a speeding truck loaded with thousands of pounds of explosives — that should be attached to the inside fence of a two-fence perimeter. The Rocky Flats cable was on the outside fence, which does not have alarms. Therefore a terrorist could, undetected, cut the cable and drive through the outside fence, easily crash through the inside chain link fence in a truck loaded with explosives, park alongside a nearby vault, and detonate a bomb. This vulnerability had been identified in 1996, and had never been fixed. In late 1999, under pressure from Richardson’s team, this problem was addressed within hours at minimal cost by placing large boulders around the fence.

In October 1999, the DOE security czar sent DOE and DOD [Department of Defense] experts to Rocky Flats to resolve the outstanding problems found by Richardson’s team. At first, Rocky Flats DOE management refused to allow the team on the site. Once they were permitted inside, the experts still found the same problems Rocky Flats had agreed to fix two years earlier.

When the experts returned in March 2000 to validate the protective force changes, they found a different but alarming trend. Repeatedly during force-on-force drills, the protective forces were “shooting” everyone in sight – mock terrorists, scientists, “controllers wearing orange safety vests, and each other” – in a simulated test. The rules of deadly force were completely abandoned to pass the tests and prove “low risk,” the same problem noted in 1998 and again in 1999.

Los Alamos Technical Area-18

Technical Area-18 (TA-18), run by the University of California, is one of a number of technical areas at Los Alamos. It houses several nuclear burst reactors and tons of weapons-grade HEU and PU. The facility was built on the floor of a canyon in the 1940’s so that the walls of the canyon would absorb the radiation from the reactors. However, today the lack of control of the high ground around the canyon makes the site extremely difficult to defend.

Special Nuclear Materials (SNM) are stored in vaults at several locations on the site. The security infrastructure has been in a state of disrepair. As recently as a few years ago it was found that someone could get inside the fence without being detected because of the poor quality of the closed-circuit TV cameras. Until recently one of the vaults storing SNM even had a window.

The House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations was concerned about the security of this site as early as the early 1980’s. According to former Chairman John Dingell, “The Subcommittee’s work on this matter began in 1981 in response to efforts to undermine independent review of security threats…. [T]he safeguards at the most critical facilities — which included Los Alamos — were in shambles while, at the same time, DOE’s Office of Safeguards and Security was giving the facilities a clean bill of health.”

In 1997, a special unit of the U.S. Army Special Forces was the adversary during a force-on-force exercise. The normal theft scenario is to “steal” enough SNM for a crude nuclear weapon that would fit in rucksacks. But, according to the Wall Street Journal, this exercise required that they “steal” more HEU than a person can carry. Not to be outmaneuvered, the Army Special Forces commandos went to Home Depot and bought a garden cart. They attacked TA-18, loaded the garden cart with nuclear materials, and left the facility. “[T]he invaders reached the simulated objective of the game: enough nuclear material to make an atom bomb.” And they did so with relative ease.

As the Wall Street Journal reported:

“The Garden Cart attackers … used snipers hidden in the hills to “kill” the first guards [protective forces] who arrived. Because they happened to be the commanders of the guard force, the rest of the force was thrown into disarray. Many of them also were “killed” as they arrived in small groups down a narrow road leading to TA-18. ‘[The Special Forces] took them out piecemeal as they came in,’ says one participant in the game, whose account wasn’t challenged by DOE or lab officials.”

As the Wall Sreet Journal further noted, “The 1997 mock invasion succeeded despite months of guard [protective forces] training and dozens of computerized battle simulations showing that newly beefed-up defenders of the facility would win.”

In 1998, while completing their required annual survey, the Albuquerque Operations Office found the security at TA-18 and other Los Alamos sites unsatisfactory. By the time the report made its way through top management, the unsatisfactory became satisfactory, with no change in actual security. A force-on-force exercise was performed by the 1998 survey team, but they reported that the Los Alamos protective force had compromised the exercise. The DOE Inspector General found that DOE supervisors in Albuquerque refused to investigate the matter….

In the Summer of 1999, Secretary Richardson’s security team inspected Los Alamos and recommended that TA-18 be shut down and immediately de-inventoried because it could not be defended. However, DOE management persuaded Secretary Richardson not to shut down the site immediately, but instead to further study the matter. In the Fall of 1999, Secretary Richardson created a relocation team to recommend alternative sites for the TA-18 missions.

In January 2000, while on a site visit to TA-18, members of the relocation team raised questions about an obvious vulnerability at this site. In a semi-hardened building, one of the burst reactors with large plates of HEU fuel was properly stored in an upgraded vault. Another almost identical reactor was sitting in the middle of an open area. The obvious security issue was to either put the reactor in a vault, or take the fuel out and store it in a vault. Los Alamos management refused to do either….

In October 2000, the Headquarters Independent Oversight group ran a force-on-force attack — gaining access to the reactor fuel and potentially causing a sizable nuclear detonation that would have taken out part of New Mexico and caused havoc downwind.

On November 22, 2000, shortly after a meeting with Secretary Richardson, NNSA Director General John Gordon sent an angry letter to Los Alamos Lab Director Dr. John Browne threatening to shut down TA-18 after the debacle in October. Gordon wrote:

“The failure of the University of California to submit a suitable corrective action plan and to correct in a timely manner the deficiencies cited in an October 2000 assessment of TA-18 security capabilities is unacceptable. As you know, the assessment identified a number of improvements but also several significant weaknesses — most notably in the security strategy, the level of response training, and in the security forces’ understanding of appropriate response procedures. The problems that were noted can be fixed by changes in strategy without the need for the site to incur significant additional costs (emphasis added) . . . If any of these actions do not occur, all activities at TA-18 will be immediately suspended until the actions have been taken and verified.”

A DOE Headquarters security team went to Los Alamos in December of 2000 to verify that Los Alamos had made adequate upgrades. While they had made upgrades, the changes had not been performance tested to ascertain their effectiveness. An internal DOE memorandum raised basic questions about the adequacy of the “new and improved” protection of this site.

Transportation Security Division

The Department of Energy Transportation Security Division (TSD) moves nuclear weapons, as well as weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, from site to site across the nation on public highways. The protective forces in the Transportation Division are civilian federal employees. In late 1998, TSD submitted a Site Safeguards and Security Plan (SSSP) to Headquarters for approval. Preliminary examination of the testing scenarios revealed that the SSSP used simplistic attacks and “dumbed down” use of weapons.

During planning phases the TSD team of specialists and commanders were aghast at the proposed use of sniper rifles with armor-piercing incendiary rounds by the adversaries. The DOE Inspector General determined that DOE management considered the use of a sniper rifle unreasonable and that only “super adversaries” would use them. In fact, these weapons have been available since World War I. The GAO found in an undercover investigation that more than 100,000 rounds of Pentagon-surplus, armor-piercing incendiary rounds have been sold on the civilian market.

At the DOE Pantex nuclear weapons-assembly facility [in Texas], security officials believed that armored Humvees were death traps, because of the availability of armor-piercing incendiary rounds. The Pantex Security Director lamented that he would never allow his protective forces to fight from them, and that it would have been just as effective to buy Yugo’s. Incredibly, the next day, Secretary Richardson’s security team was at Sandia [in New Mexico], and found officials in the process of buying armored Humvees. Using these readily-available armor-piercing incendiary rounds, terrorists could shoot through the armored truck cabs, killing the driver and protective forces, making the transported nuclear materials ready for the taking.

In the simulation phase only four tests were run. According to sources familiar with the test, the TSD protective forces were literally annihilated in tens of seconds after an attack was started. In after-action briefings the convoy commander admitted that they had experienced similar results in force-on-force testing many months earlier. Part of the problem was that the guards’ weapons were of inadequate range to reach the adversary.

A December 12, 1998 internal DOE memorandum reported on the computerized Joint Tactical Simulations (JTS) evaluations of the Transportation Division’s SSSP conducted at Sandia: “JTS results on the first worst case scenario … were 3 losses and no wins. JTS results on the second worst case scenario … were 3 losses and 1 win. The high TSD JTS loss rate for the first two worst case scenarios caused TSD to request termination of JTS activity. TSD requested DOE Headquarters’ assistance to analyze the poor results and begin to determine possible corrective actions.”

In early 1999, a special force-on-force test was run at Fort Hood for the luminaries from Washington — Deputy Secretary, Undersecretary and top security and program officials — to show that the TSD could handle the threat. The U.S. Army Special Forces provided the adversaries. The protective force won. However, according to a Special Forces representative, he noticed a piece of paper held by a protective force member that he had just “shot” — it was a complete outline of the mock terrorists’ attack plan. The protective force was cheating. Secretary Richardson’s Special Assistant, Peter Stockton, proved the cheating to the Albuquerque manager and the TSD manager. No action was taken.

In November 1999, an Army Special Forces representative found that the new sniper rifles used by TSD were target range variety, not for combat in rugged terrain. In fact, the sights on the rifles were very sensitive and would not survive the rigors of combat. More than half of the unclassified recommendations made by the DOE Inspector General regarding the SSSP process were focused on improving the security of the TSD program.

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