Congress Investigates LANL Security Breaches

Congress Investigates LANL Security Breaches

A House Subcommittee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing to investigate security breaches at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) on Tuesday, January 30th. At the hearing, lawmakers threatened to strip LANL of classified operations or even shut it down due to persistent security lapses.

"There is an absolute inability and unwillingness to address the most routine security issues at this laboratory," said Representative Joe Barton, of Texas.

The hearing was held to investigate a recent security breach where a subcontractor left the LANL site with more than 1,588 pages of classified documents. Los Alamos County police, while investigating a domestic disturbance call, discovered the breach. The breach was not detected by a security system. Among other issues, the subcommittee was concerned that there was no way to be sure if other such breaches had occurred, but gone unnoticed.

The subcommittee inquired why LANL, more than any other site within the nuclear weapons complex, so frequently has security breaches. LANL has been investigated seven times since 2000. Perhaps most notably, in 2004 security systems indicated that two disks were missing and caused a seven month stand-down of operations, until the Department of Energy (DOE) determined that the disks had never existed in the first place. This stand-down cost tax payers as much as $370 million.

Representative Bart Stupak, of Michigan, called for a comprehensive audit of all LANL activities. He requested an evaluation whether the large size and mission at LANL contribute to security issues and whether classified operations should be moved.

In 2005, DOE awarded the LANL contract to a new manager in an attempt to resolve security concerns. Management was shifted from the University of California to Los Alamos National Securities (LANS), a limited liability corporation, comprised of the University of California, Bechtel, BWXT and the Washington Group International. The contract allows DOE to penalize LANS up to their full performance fee of $73 million for failure to prevent such a breach of security.

Blame for the security breach was not placed solely on LANS. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) oversight was also called to task. NNSA was created as a semiautonomous agency within DOE in 1999 to oversee the nuclear weapons complex and improve cyber security. It was reported at the hearing that NNSA has 20 vacant positions in its Los Alamos Site Office, many of which are in the safety and security division.

Bipartisan leading members of the House believe that NNSA has not demonstrated its ability to over see security. Representatives Barton of Texas, John Dingell and Bart Stupak of Michigan, Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Ed Whitfield of Kentucky recently introduced a bill that would strip some self regulating powers from NNSA. The bill would have DOE reassume oversight of certain safety, security and health functions.

The NNSA Accountability Act, states, "Since Congress created the separately organized [NNSA] within [DOE] in 1999, NNSA facilities have experienced an inordinate number of security incidents relating to the mishandling of classified information.[O]ngoing events demonstrate NNSA has failed to take any comprehensive action to protect national security and prevent the loss of classified information."

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