'Catastrophic Consequences' Could Befall Weapons Lab

The Department of Energy is misleading Congress about security at the nation's nuclear weapons labs and left unchecked it could lead to "catastrophic consequences," a former counterintelligence officer at Lawrence Livermore National Lab wrote in a letter to a top member of Congress this month.

"Congress is being misled on the true nature of the effectiveness of counterintelligence within the Department of Energy," wrote Terry Turchie in a Sept. 1 letter to Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

The problem, he wrote, is last year's consolidation of the two counterintelligence offices at the Department of Energy into the broader Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. That change, he wrote, has diminished the emphasis and management of the agency's efforts to ferret out espionage.

"Counterintelligence capabilities have been greatly undermined," wrote Turchie, who headed Livermore's counterintelligence from 2001 to September 2007 and was one of the lead FBI agents investigating Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski. "As a result, the vulnerability of DOE personnel and facilities to hostile intelligence entities has increased exponentially."

Security at DOE's weapon's labs has long been a concern. But the new allegations, which will be among the topics addressed at a hearing Thursday by Dingell's committee, raise questions about one of the more recent changes to DOE oversight.

"Mr. Turchie's letter raises a number of concerns about how merging the counterintelligence and intelligence functions at the Department of Energy may have impaired the Department's counterintelligence capabilities," Dingell said in a statement.

A Department of Energy spokesperson defended the consolidation and noted that it had been mandated by Congress. The office "provided and continues to provide the Secretary and other decision-makers within the Department, other government agencies, and Congress timely, technical intelligence and counterintelligence analysis on all aspects of foreign nuclear weapons, nuclear materials and energy security issues worldwide," Andrew Beck said in a statement.

Among the concerns highlighted in the letter.

*That the new director put more emphasis on intelligence than counterintelligence.

*That the senior counterintelligence officers in the field have "drastically reduced" communication with headquarters.

*That lab directors had not had as much input in the development of counterintelligence principles.

*That counterintelligence field positions were reduced and not filled quickly enough.

The allegations highlight similar concerns raised in a July report by the Congressional Research Service. But proponents of the change, CRS noted, found that most favored the consolidation, which they said reduced overlap, gave a unifying structure and put one individual ultimately accountable for any counterintelligence problems.

How to handle counterintelligence at the labs has a long history. Following revelations 1998 that indicated China had stolen nuclear weapons secrets from the DOE lab, President Bill Clinton created a special Office of Counterintelligence in the department to come up with a comprehensive plan to ferret out espionage. In 1999, Congress, based on recommendations from a series of experts, created a separate semi-autonomous agency within DOE, the National Nuclear Security Administration, to oversee counterintelligence at the DOE weapons labs. The original office of counterintelligence remained at DOE, with oversight of the non-weapons labs.

There was some sharing of intelligence but by 2002, critics were already pointing to problems in the bifurcated counterintelligence approach and by 2003, the Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham publicly said that the this structure was "not optimal."

So in 2007, on the recommendation of DOE, Congress consolidated the two counterintelligence offices.

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