Los Alamos’ Hidden Lesson

August 1, 1999

Americans got a highly visible and all-too-rare lesson in the importance of government organization last month when former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., and his colleagues on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board released their critical report on the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories. Blasting the Energy Department for “organizational disarray, managerial neglect and a culture of arrogance,” Rudman’s special investigating committee recommended that the nation’s nuclear secrets be placed under the control of a new quasi-independent agency. The Agency for Nuclear Stewardship would have “a clear mission, streamlined bureaucracy and drastically simplified lines of authority and accountability,” the committee said.

The Rudman report drew prominent press coverage. It even popped up in President Clinton’s June 26 news conference, when he revised his statement of two months earlier that no one had told him of suspected Chinese espionage at the national laboratories.

The coverage had reached its peak, however, earlier in that week when Rudman squared off with Energy Secretary Bill Richardson at a joint hearing of the four Senate committees charged with overseeing the department?Armed Services, Energy and Natural Resources, Governmental Affairs and Intelligence. In all, 32 senators appeared at the hearing as Rudman and Richardson struggled to find common ground on an organizational solution to the accountability crisis.

Of course, the fact that it took four committees and one-third of the Senate to mount the hearing was mostly ignored as one possible source of the department’s accountability problem. The only one who seemed to notice was Rudman himself, who criticized his former colleagues in Congress and their legions of staff for ignoring the same warning signs that the President and his minions had missed.

Though Rudman and Richardson agreed on the need for action, they differed sharply on the need for a new agency-within-an-agency headed by a mostly autonomous undersecretary for nuclear stewardship. Although the undersecretary would report to the Secretary, the position would be more akin to an inspector general than a line officer of the department. Richardson was right to conclude that this powerful, congressionally connected undersecretary could easily freeze him out of the security loop. Hence, his intense reaction: “I hate this ‘agency’ word, I abhor it. It connotes something that is a separate entity within my own entity.”

Had Americans observed the hearing from start to finish, they would have learned, for starters, that the Energy Department’s organizational chart is a tangled mess of misaligned offices, contradictory missions and overlapping jurisdictions, all in a sea of boxes with fancy, overblown titles but little accountability.

Americans also would have learned that the departmental superstructure is populated by a vast and growing list of loosely connected deputies, assistants and associates, many of whom have their own chiefs of staff and special assistants. No security czar, even one as determined and talented as retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, whom Richardson appointed in June, can control a chain of command that includes so many different links. The problem in the recent breach was not just the number of divisions involved in security; it was also the distance between the top and bottom. With 15 to 25 layers between the Energy Secretary and the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, it will still be nearly impossible to hold any one layer responsible for passing the right information up and precise guidance down.

Finally, Americans watching the hearing would have heard a great deal about a bureaucratic culture that stifles innovation, threatens whistleblowers and snuffs out even the most desperately needed reforms. They would have been shocked, for example, to hear Rudman talk of a government agency with “the bureaucratic insolence to dispute, delay and resist a presidential security directive” and would have wondered how a problem that had been studied to death could still endure. Unfortunately, they would have heard very little about how to change that culture.

Fears of a more sophisticated Chinese arsenal may obscure the real lesson from the recent hearing: It is only when an agency creates a threat to public confidence or national security that Congress and the President are motivated to create the clarity of mission, streamlined bureaucracy and simplified lines of authority so essential to success. And even then, they can only do so by creating a kind of bureaucratic sanctuary in which federal employees have what they need most: organizations that allow ideas to flow freely, authority to act and the surety that comes from a clear task at hand.

The rest of government can only marvel at this perverse incentive for insolence. The more an agency fails, the better the odds that Congress and the President will actually loosen the bonds that frustrate performance. Unless Congress and the President figure out a way to create such sanctuary for every agency, it will not be long before Americans are treated to another hearing on organizational failure. We had one two years ago on the Internal Revenue Service. Who’s next?