!! History Commons Alert, Exciting News

Context of 'September-October 2002: DOE Nuclear Safety Specialist Demoted, Fired for Criticizing ‘Inept’ Terrorism Preparations'

This is a scalable context timeline. It contains events related to the event September-October 2002: DOE Nuclear Safety Specialist Demoted, Fired for Criticizing ‘Inept’ Terrorism Preparations. You can narrow or broaden the context of this timeline by adjusting the zoom level. The lower the scale, the more relevant the items on average will be, while the higher the scale, the less relevant the items, on average, will be.

Department of Energy safety specialist Chris Steele reads a memo that alerts him to the existence of a secret nuclear waste dump at the Los Alamos nuclear facility. The waste is being stored in an unsecured, unprotected steel building on site, and has been on site for five years. A shocked Steele immediately shuts down the nuclear dump, forcing it to be relocated to protected areas. Steele notes that the existence of such a waste dump is a violation of the law and a serious threat to the health and safety of workers, the public, and the environment. Steele recalls that a wildfire burned part of the Los Alamos facility in May 2000; only the fact that the fire did not jump the road across from the waste dump saved it from going up in radioactive flames. [Carter, 2004, pp. 17-18; Vanity Fair, 2/15/2004]

Entity Tags: US Department of Energy

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

Department of Energy (DOE) safety specialist Chris Steele, who shut down a hazardous, unsecured nuclear waste dump at the Los Alamos nuclear facility a year earlier (see July 18, 2001), is demoted from his position as the DOE’s chief safety official at Los Alamos after he overrules what he calls inept preparations against terrorist attacks. In October 2002, Steele receives a safety analysis report for a radioactive waste treatment facility at Los Alamos. The report estimates the chances of a “rogue” airliner crashing into the facility as being a million to one, even considering the events of September 11, 2001. It predicts that such a crash, deliberate or not, would cause hundreds of thousands of gallons of nuclear waste to catch fire. However, the report said, the roof sprinkler system would put out the flames. Steele points out that the sprinkler system would be destroyed in the crash: “That must be a magical sprinkler system, since it’s apparently able to rise up from the rubble, turn itself on and put out the flames. We should buy one of those for every nuclear plant in the country.” After Steele rejects the report, he is stripped of his security clearance and fired. He is accused of committing “serious security violations” by the National Nuclear Security Administration. [Carter, 2004, pp. 17-18; Vanity Fair, 2/15/2004]

Entity Tags: National Nuclear Security Administration, US Department of Energy, Chris Steele

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Representatives from the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Energy Department’s intelligence agency meet to discuss the draft of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which will be published the following month (see October 1, 2002). Representing the DOE’s intelligence service is Thomas Ryder, who is temporarily filling in as the office’s acting director. Significantly, Ryder is a “human resources guy” with no intelligence background. “Ryder is not an intelligence guy by any stretch of the imagination,” a DOE source will later explain to World Net Daily. “He [has]… no intel background whatsoever. He [works] on all the personnel stuff—paperwork for promotions, hiring contractors, stuff like that.” At the meeting, Ryder is supposed to represent the position of the DOE’s scientists and intelligence officers, who believe that Iraq has not reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. Scientists in the Energy Department as well as officers in the department’s intelligence office want to join the INR in its dissenting vote. One official will later explain to World Net Daily, “Senior folks in the office wanted to join INR on the footnote, and even wanted to write it with them, so the footnote would have read, ‘Energy and INR.’” [WorldNetDaily, 8/12/2003; New York Times, 10/3/2004 Sources: Unnamed US official] Instead Ryder will side with the other intelligence agencies who claim that Iraq has reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. An official later tells World Net Daily that when Ryder and his staff were arguing over Iraq’s alleged program during a pre-brief, Ryder told them to “shut up and sit down.” [WorldNetDaily, 8/12/2003 Sources: Unnamed US official] When the voting takes place, Ryder does not sign his department onto the State Department’s dissenting opinion. As a result, the final vote is a near unanimous 5-1. “Time comes for the Iraq NIE, and instead of being hard-charging and proactive and pulling everybody together, he just didn’t know what to do,” one source later says. “He wasn’t a strong advocate. He just didn’t have the background. He didn’t have the gravitas.” The Department of Energy’s position on the issue is considered very important. “Energy’s vote on the nuclear allegation was critical, because the department is viewed as the final arbiter of technical disputes regarding nuclear-proliferation issues,” World Net Daily will note. [WorldNetDaily, 8/12/2003; WorldNetDaily, 8/12/2003 Sources: Unnamed US official] While serving in the temporary DOE position, Ryder, who is said to be close to Secretary Spencer Abraham, receives bonuses totaling $20,500. Energy insiders will say they cannot remember a previous instance where an intelligence chief had been provided with such a large bonus. “That’s a hell of a lot of money for an intelligence director who had no experience or background in intelligence, and who’d only been running the office for nine months,” one official says. “Something’s fishy.” [WorldNetDaily, 8/12/2003]

Entity Tags: Thomas S. Ryder, Spencer Abraham, Bureau of Intelligence and Research

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

President Bush receives a one-page, highly classified “President’s Summary” of the US intelligence community’s new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq (see October 1, 2002). The summary discusses the high-strength aluminum tubes that many administration and Pentagon officials believe are being used to help Iraq construct a nuclear weapon. Both the Energy Department (DOE) and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) believe the tubes are “intended for conventional weapons,” contradicting the view of other intelligence agencies, including the CIA and DIA. The public will not be told of Bush’s personal knowledge of the DOE and INR dissents until March 2006. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other senior officials will try to explain the administration’s stance on Iraq’s nuclear program by asserting that neither Bush, Vice President Cheney, nor Rice ever saw the dissents. For months, Bush, Cheney, Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell (see February 5, 2003), and others will cite the tubes as indisputable proof of an Iraqi nuclear program. US inspectors will discover, after the fall of the Iraqi regime, that the nuclear program had been dormant for over ten years, and the aluminum tubes used only for artillery shells.
Inquiry - The Bush administration will refuse to release the summary to Congressional investigators who wish to know the basis for the Bush administration’s assertions about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. A senior official calls it the “one document which illustrates what the president knew and when he knew it.” It is likely that Bush never read the dissents in the report itself, as administration officials will confirm they do not believe Bush would have read the entire NIE, and it is likely that he never made it to the dissents, in a special text box positioned well away from the main text of the report. However, the one-page summary was written specifically for Bush, was handed to Bush by then-CIA director George Tenet, Bush read the summary in Tenet’s presence, and the two discussed the subject at length. Cheney was given virtually the same information as Bush concerning every aspect of the intelligence community’s findings on Iraq. Nevertheless, Bush and other officials (see July 11, 2003) will claim for months that they were unaware of the dissents. [National Journal, 3/2/2006]

Entity Tags: George J. Tenet, Central Intelligence Agency, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Colin Powell, Defense Intelligence Agency, George W. Bush, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of Energy, US Department of Defense, Condoleezza Rice

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

The proposed 2004 budget of the Energy Department’s Nuclear Security Administration includes some $15 million for the development of a nuclear bunker-buster bomb called the “Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator” and $6 million for two of the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore. The labs would “assemble design teams to study advanced nuclear concepts,” the Washington Post reports. [Washington Post, 2/20/2003; USA Today, 7/6/2003]

Timeline Tags: US Military

Rich Levernier, a specialist with the Department of Energy (DOE) for 22 years who spent over six years before the 9/11 attacks running nuclear war games for the US government, says that the Bush administration has done little more than talk about securing the nation’s nuclear facilities from terrorist attacks. If Levernier and his team of experts (see February 15, 2004) are correct in their assessments, the administration is actually doing virtually nothing to protect the US’s nuclear weapons facilities, which certainly top any terrorist’s wish list of targets. Instead of addressing the enormous security problems at these facilities, it is persecuting whistleblowers like Levernier. Indeed, the administration denies a danger even exists. “Any implication that there is a 50 percent failure rate on security tests at our nuclear weapons sites is not true,” says Anson Franklin, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a DOE agency that oversees the US’s nuclear weapons complex. “Our facilities are not vulnerable.”
Too Strict Grading? - James Ford, who is retired, was Levernier’s direct DOE supervisor in the late 1990s. He says that while Levernier was a talented and committed employee, the results he claims from his mock terror attacks are skewed because of what Ford calls Levernier’s too-strict approach to grading the performance of the nuclear facilities’ security personnel. Ford says that Levernier liked to focus on one particular area, the Technical Area-18 facility, at the Los Alamos nuclear facility in New Mexico, though the site is essentially indefensible, located at the bottom of a canyon and surrounded on three sides by steep, wooded ridges that afforded potential attackers excellent cover and the advantage of high ground.
Complaints of 'Strict Grading' Baseless, Squad Commander Says - “My guys were licking their chops when they saw that terrain,” says Ronald Timms, who commanded mock terrorist squads under Levernier’s supervision. Timms, now the head of RETA Security, which participated in many DOE war games and designed the National Park Service’s security plans for Mount Rushmore, says Ford’s complaint is groundless: “To say it’s unfair to go after the weak link is so perverse, it’s ridiculous. Of course the bad guys are going to go after the weakest link. That’s why [DOE] isn’t supposed to have weak links at those facilities.” In one such attack Timms recalls, Levernier’s forces added insult to injury by hauling away the stolen weapons-grade nuclear material in a Home Depot garden cart. The then-Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson, ordered the weapons-grade material at TA-18 to be removed to the Nevada Test Site by 2003. That has not happened yet, and is not expected to happen until 2006 at the earliest.
Rules of Engagement - The failure rates are even harder to understand considering the fact that the rules of engagement are heavily slanted in favor of the defense. A real terrorist attack would certainly be a surprise, but the dates of the war games were announced months in advance, within an eight-hour window. Attackers were not allowed to use grenades, body armor, or helicopters. They were not allowed to use publicly available radio jamming devices. “DOE wouldn’t let me use that stuff, because it doesn’t have a defense against it,” Levernier says. His teams were required, for safety reasons, to obey 25 MPH speed limits. Perhaps the biggest flaw in the DOE’s war games, Levernier says, is that they don’t allow for suicide bombers. The games required Levernier’s teams to steal weapons-grade nuclear material and escape. It is likely, though, that attackers would enter the facility, secure the materials, and detonate their own explosives. DOE did not order nuclear facilities to prepare for such attacks until May 2003, and the policy change does not take effect until 2009. Levernier notes that three of the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities did relatively well against mock attacks: the Argonne National Laboratory-West in Idaho, the Pantex plant in Texas, and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
Bureaucratic, Political Resistance - So why, asks Vanity Fair journalist Mark Hertsgaard, doesn’t the Bush administration insist on similar vigilance throughout the entire nuclear complex? They “just don’t think [a catastrophic attack] will happen,” Levernier replies. “And nobody wants to say we can’t protect these nuclear weapons, because the political fallout would be so great that there would be no chance to keep the system running.” The DOE bureaucracy is more interested in the appearance of proper oversight than the reality, says Tom Devine, the lawyer who represents both Levernier and other whistleblowers. “Partly that’s about saving face. To admit that a whistleblower’s charges are right would reflect poorly on the bureaucracy’s competence. And fixing the problems that whistleblowers identify would often mean diverting funds that bureaucrats would rather use for other purposes, like empire building. But the main reason bureaucrats have no tolerance for dissent is that taking whistleblowers’ charges seriously would require them to stand up to the regulated industry, and that’s not in most bureaucrats’ nature, whether the industry is the nuclear weapons complex or the airlines.”
Stiff Resistance from Bush Administration - Devine acknowledges that both of his clients’ troubles began under the Clinton administration and continued under Bush, but, Devine says, the Bush administration is particularly unsympathetic to whistleblowers because it is ideologically disposed against government regulation in general. “I don’t think President Bush or other senior officials in this administration want another September 11th,” says Devine, “but their anti-government ideology gets in the way of fixing the problems Levenier and [others] are talking about. The security failures in the nuclear weapons complex and the civil aviation system are failures of government regulation. The Bush people don’t believe in government regulation in the first place, so they’re not inclined to expend the time and energy needed to take these problems seriously. And then they go around boasting that they’re winning the war on terrorism. The hypocrisy is pretty outrageous.” [Carter, 2004, pp. 17-18; Vanity Fair, 2/15/2004]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), George W. Bush, Rich Levernier, RETA Security, National Nuclear Security Administration, James Ford, Bill Richardson, Anson Franklin, National Park Service, Ronald Timms, Mark Hertsgaard, Tom Devine, Vanity Fair, US Department of Energy, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Ordering 

Time period


Email Updates

Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database

 
Donate

Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
Donate Now

Volunteer

If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.
Contact Us

Creative Commons License Except where otherwise noted, the textual content of each timeline is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike