Politics & Policy

Domestic Breaches

Los Alamos — as much of an issue as ever.

On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight begins hearings on theft and corruption at Los Alamos National Laboratory. On the eve of the hearings NRO called on a former U.S. government nuclear-lab insider, Notra Trulock, to talk about security problems, espionage, and reform as these issues involve Los Alamos and other similar facilities. Notra Trulock was an director of intelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy’s nuclear labs in the late 1990s who became a whistleblower during the Clinton administration when officials within the administration ignored his warnings about security problems at Los Alamos (you can read more about what happened to him on NRO here and here). His recently released book, Code Name Kindred Spirit: Inside the Chinese Nuclear Espionage Scandal is a memoir and history of what he encountered at those labs, and what happened to him as a result of him going public with his knowledge of security breaches by Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at the Los Alamos lab, and other compromises.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: A reporter from Wired magazine says he slipped through into a top-secret area of the Los Alamos nuclear lab on Saturday. Does this surprise you?

NOTRA TRULOCK: I am surprised at the ease with which the Wired magazine reporter accessed top-secret areas at Los Alamos. After all the scandals at Los Alamos over recent years and the current nation-wide high-alert status, I would have thought that security would be air-tight at the lab. I wonder what the lab is doing with all the additional funding it has received since 9/11 that supposedly has been devoted to enhanced security measures. Technical Area 33, penetrated by the reporter, is particularly sensitive since so much “black work” is done there.

LOPEZ: What could possibly be a reason for the government not to have top-notch security at the likes of Los Alamos? Besides Sept. 11 realities, they have already had problems at this lab!

TRULOCK: Lax security at Los Alamos or any of the nation’s nuclear weapons labs is inexcusable — even before the 9/11 tragedy. This latest incident seems to demonstrate that nothing ever really changes at Los Alamos, no matter how embarrassing the scandal or how damaging it is to U.S. national security.

LOPEZ: Lab workers at Los Alamos have reportedly worried about a “brain drain,” as the University of California disassociates itself with the lab. Should Los Alamos be closed?

TRULOCK: I do not believe that Los Alamos should be closed. I think it should be brought under new management. “Brain drain” is the card that the labs play whenever there might be a prospect of increased oversight or tighter management. I recommend to Energy Secretary Abraham that he fire the University of California and find a contractor to run the lab that will enforce security, counterintelligence, and other national-security mandates.

LOPEZ: How many labs like Los Alamos does the U.S. have? Do you know if others are in such disturbing security shape?

TRULOCK:There are two other “nuclear-weapons labs” at Sandia in New Mexico and Livermore in California. These three are the only Energy Department labs directly involved in the design and development of U.S. nuclear weapons. Each has had security problems in recent years. Livermore has recently settled a major whistleblower case involving security problems, but there continue to be concerns about physical security at this California lab. Sandia is operated by Lockheed-Martin and seems to do better, although it has been lax in enforcing export-control regulations. The labs’ ability to bury or classify problems is inexhaustible.

LOPEZ: What do we know China got from Los Alamos? Do we have any idea if it has been passed on to other nations/groups?

TRULOCK: We know that the Chinese acquired classified nuclear-design information on seven U.S. nuclear warheads, including most notably the W-88 thermonuclear warhead and the U.S. enhanced radiation warhead (the neutron bomb). We also know that classified data on 22 other U.S. nuclear warheads, including design information, were compromised by the placement of this information on an unclassified, unprotected server at Los Alamos. We must be concerned about China’s long-time nuclear relationship with Pakistan and the latter’s with North Korea; direct evidence of transfers is likely to be nearly impossible to obtain.

LOPEZ: Some whistleblowers get Time magazine praise. Your life was turned upside down and you seemed to get more probing treatment than Wen Ho Lee (certainly none of the sympathy)? In hindsight, would you have done anything different? Wish the government had?

TRULOCK:I did not draw a government paycheck to cover up nuclear espionage or ignore the deplorable security and counterintelligence conditions at Los Alamos and elsewhere that made successful espionage inevitable. My job was to protect the nation’s nuclear secrets from foreign intelligence services and efforts to steal those secrets. It is asking too much to wish the Clinton administration had done things differently, but I do wish the Bush administration would take lab security more seriously. All of these problems have been well known for decades, but the administration failed to take the steps necessary to clean out high-level lab managers and their federal protectors in Washington who exacerbated these problems in the 1990s. Consequently, further scandals and embarrassments were inevitable.

LOPEZ: Do you believe Wen Ho Lee was/is a spy?

TRULOCK:There was a mountain of circumstantial evidence implicating Lee. In 2000, a federal prosecutor told then Attorney General Janet Reno that his review indicated there was sufficient “probable cause to believe that Wen Ho Lee was an agent of a foreign power, that is to say, a United States Person currently engaged in clandestine intelligence gathering activities for or on behalf of the PRC which activities might involve violations of the criminal laws of the United States…” The only real question is why the FBI failed so miserably in its investigation of Lee.

LOPEZ: In your estimation, has the FBI even begun to adequately clean up?

TRULOCK: Director Mueller seems to be making some good efforts at cleaning up the Bureau. Most of the culprits of the Lee debacle have left, either through retirement or transfer. (Incredibly, one now directs counterintelligence at the Energy Department.) But the damage that was done over the past decade to the bureau’s counterterrorism and counterintelligence capabilities cannot be fixed in a month or even in a year. The reconstruction of the Bureau, done properly, will take years.

LOPEZ: What’s the most important falsehood regarding Wen Ho Lee and your situations that Codename Kindred Spirit reveals?

TRULOCK: The two most important falsehoods are that no espionage occurred and Wen Ho Lee was the victim of racial or ethnic profiling. The Clinton administration used sympathetic journalists to spread the story, unsourced, that no espionage had occurred beginning in 1999. But note that no official has contradicted on the record the U.S. Intelligence Community 1999 judgment that “China obtained by espionage classified U.S. nuclear weapons information that probably accelerated its program to develop future nuclear weapons.” Likewise, 1996 was the third time that Wen Ho Lee had fallen under FBI counterintelligence suspicion since the early 1980s. It was Lee’s actions and security breaches that brought him to the bureau’s attention.

LOPEZ: Congress is holding a series of hearings involving Los Alamos that begin this week. What would you like to see them focus on?

TRULOCK: First and foremost, Congress must find a way to hold the nuclear labs and the Energy Department accountable for their actions. The trail of studies and assessments of what needs to be done to fix security and management overall at the labs stretches back over 20 years. Many know what needs to be done, but never are able to overcome the labs’ resistance, the timidity of federal managers in Washington, or the obstruction by lab patrons on Capitol Hill. And, sooner or later, the Congress will have to return to the Cox Report and assess how much if any progress has been made fixing the problems exposed by that effort.


The Latest