Layers to Los Alamos

June 28, 2000

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson testified before the Senate last week that he is mystified about the latest security breach at Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory. “It is unacceptable and incomprehensible to me,” Richardson said of recent reports about lost computer drives, “and I will not rest until I know precisely what happened.”

Richardson will never find the answers talking solely to the research scientists at Los Alamos. If he wants to know why the message about nuclear security is not getting down to the bottom, he should pull out the Department of Energy phone book and ask what happened at every link in his chain of command.

Richardson should start by asking his chief of staff to explain the recent breach, then ask to be transferred to his two deputy chiefs of staff, and end his first round of calls with his senior policy adviser for nuclear security affairs. Total calls: four.

Richardson should then dial up his deputy secretary for a talk, and finish this second string of calls by asking to be transferred to the deputy secretary’s senior policy adviser, followed by his special assistant. Total calls: three.

Richardson should next talk to his undersecretary for nuclear security, who also acts as the administrator of the newly created Nuclear Security Administration and also holds the title of principal deputy administrator for military application.

Richardson should then talk to principal deputy administrator of the Nuclear Security Administration and with the principal assistant deputy administrator for operations, who can transfer him down to the assistant deputy administrator for military application and stockpile operations, and from there continue dialing on downward to the associate deputy assistant administrator for nuclear weapons surety, then down to the director of the office of nuclear weapons security and control, and even further down to complete this third round of calls with the director of the Albuquerque operations office, and the assorted division chiefs, office directors and branch chiefs who oversee the security effort. Total calls: 15 to 20.

After he’s done with his headquarters staff, Richardson should call the president of the University of California, which administers the Los Alamos contract on behalf of the U.S. government, then ask to be transferred down to the senior vice president for business and finance, who can transfer him again to the vice president for financial management, then to the assistant vice president for laboratory administration, then the executive director for laboratory operations, and finally down to the manager for facilities management and safeguards and security and the rest of that staff. Total calls: six to 10.

Once he’s penetrated the UC system, Richardson should talk to the director of the Los Alamos lab about what happened, then ask to be transferred down to the deputy laboratory director for laboratory operations, then down to the associate laboratory director for nuclear weapons and finally down to the director of the security and safeguards division. Total calls: five to 10.

If Richardson still doesn’t get the answers, he can call his inspector general, then ask to be transferred down to the principal deputy inspector general and down to the assistant inspector general for investigations, the deputy assistant inspector general, then down to the special agent in charge of his western region, then down to the assistant special agent in charge of his southwest region and finally to the field staff, who might actually know something about the breach. Total calls: seven to 10.

The more he lets his fingers do the walking through the hierarchy, the more Richardson will understand the reason why the security problems persist.The problem is not too few managers, but too many. Fifty calls and Richardson will still be hard pressed to point a finger at any one person who can be held ultimately responsible for what goes right or wrong on nuclear security. No wonder Richardson has never delivered on his spring 1999 promise to fire everyone responsible for the Los Alamos mess: He’d have to release much of the headquarters hierarchy.

Richardson believes just the opposite. “This could simply be a case of an individual who made a mistake and was terrified to come forward because they knew how seriously the department now takes security,” he told the Senate.

Would that it were true. It’s more likely that someone made a mistake and knew quite well that it would take months for anyone to discover the problem, and even longer for the discovery to percolate upward in one of the densest of federal hierarchies.

Firing Richardson won’t solve the problem. He would just be replaced by another secretary who would perch 50 layers from the front lines. Moreover, Richardson can hardly be blamed for layers that were created in previous waves of reform.

But Richardson should be held accountable for appointing the same people to hold posts in the new National Nuclear Security Administration and the old undersecretaryship for nuclear security. This “dual-hatting,” as Richardson calls it, creates considerable confusion about just who has the authority to act.

The secret to sending a firm signal about nuclear security is to stop playing the childhood game of “telephone” in the hierarchy. It’s a wonder any message gets to the bottom at all.