Oak Ridge nuclear weapons security breach showed how U.S. system for protecting federal whistleblowers is broken

By Tom Nugent and Donald R. Soeken, Ph.D

(Re-posted with permission from OpEd News – 20 November 2012)

Now that President Barack Obama has been convincingly reelected, he can do the nation a huge service by quickly ordering his White House legal counsel to review a potential national security threat that could produce a catastrophe on the scale of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

That potentially devastating threat was nakedly exposed last July 28, when three senior citizens armed only with Bibles and bolt-cutters successfully invaded the country’s major storage facility for enriched uranium.

Led by an 82-year-old, white-haired nun, the trio of elderly peace activists (average age: 67) managed to cut their way through three high-tech security fences . . . and then splashed blood and painted antiwar slogans at the $500 million Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF), supposedly the most heavily guarded nuclear weapons materials depot in the world.

An enormous embarrassment to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) – which has overall responsibility for security at the Oak Ridge (Tenn.) Nuclear Reservation – the debacle at the “Y-12” storage facility led to numerous firings and blistering criticism aimed at the private contractor which had been directing day to day security operations for DOE.

Predictably enough, the DOE Inspector General (IG), Gregory H. Friedman, quickly launched a wide-ranging investigation into the massive security breach. After several weeks of analyzing the breakdown in detail, the IG issued a report that blamed the incident on “multiple system failures on several levels” (http://energy.gov/ig/downloads/inquiry-security-breach-national-nuclear-security-administrations-y-12-national).

According to the IG, the security failures were nothing less than astonishing. His report revealed, for example, that high-tech cameras attached to the three slashed fences had been “out of service” for months at a time. And at least one critically important camera hadn’t even been turned on during the night on which the three elderly invaders successfully infiltrated the facility and easily made their way toward nuclear materials that could kill millions if used as weapons.

Summarizing its findings, the IG reported that “Contract governance and Federal oversight failed to identify and correct early indicators of . . . multiple system breakdowns. When combined, these issues directly contributed to an atmosphere in which the trespassers could gain access to the protected security area directly adjacent to one of the Nation’s most critically important and highly secured weapons-related facilities.”

Along with the DOE Inspector General, several congressional committees began investigating the security meltdown within a few days of its occurrence. These inquiries also produced initial findings that vitally important cameras had been broken or turned off during the incident, and that security personnel had failed to detect the invasion or prevent the antiwar seniors from wandering around the heart of the complex at will for a full hour before they were finally apprehended.

As expected, both the IG’s report and the congressional inquiries were full of sharply worded language that deplored the stunning lapse in security at Y-12. They also called for rapid, wide-ranging steps that could be taken to repair the breakdowns and prevent them from happening again.

But neither the IG’s report nor the congressional findings even mentioned a key aspect of the hugely embarrassing event at Oak Ridge – the fact that although dozens (hundreds?) of federal and contract employees had to know about the broken cameras and other security lapses that were taking place during the months leading up to the invasion, no one seems to have reported them to superiors inside or outside DOE.Remarkably enough, none of the investigative panels managed to frame the one key question that may be most important of all, when it comes to understanding why the debacle occurred last July.

Q. Why didn’t somebody speak up about the security problems in order to prevent a potential tragedy on the scale of 9/11?

The answer to that question is simple enough: Like the intelligence failures and security breakdowns that occurred during 9/11, itself, the disastrous failures at Y-12 occurred in large part because there was no effective system in place to ensure that federal employees can report such lapses without fear of reprisal from the government agencies where they work.Protecting Federal Whistleblowers: Is the System “Broken”?Although the system for making sure that the nation’s 2.1 million federal workers can report abuses and security-endangering failures with impunity has a complicated history, the basic structure is easy to understand.

That structure is determined by the sweeping new federal rules and regulations that were implemented by the landmark Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978 (along with subsequent amendments).In order to ensure that federal employees can report problems without fear of reprisal, CSRA created a new entity – the executive branch’s Office of Special Counsel (OSC) – and gave it the authority to order investigations of reports (called “disclosures,” in government parlance) of fraud, waste and abuse.

At the same time, congress created a second agency – the Merit System Protection Board (MSPB) – that was charged with monitoring the OSC’s effectiveness as both a disclosure channel and the protector of whistle-blowing federal employees from reprisal. To accomplish that task, MSPB was assigned to conduct periodic, detailed studies of OSC’s performance.The system looks good on paper, of course . . . but the record over the past 34 years shows clearly that it has not worked. Hamstrung by lack of resources and chronically weakened by undue political influence, OSC has simply failed to establish the kind of “level playing field” that its congressional supporters intended, when they set out to establish a system that would protect whistle-blowers for the good of the entire country.

As numerous critics have pointed out over the years, OSC’s inability to function effectively can be seen in the fact that the agency has only about 100 employees (and a miniscule $18 million annual budget) available to handle the thousands of whistleblower disclosures and whistleblower reprisal complaints it receives annually from a vast bureaucracy of more than 2 million workers. And the results have been depressingly predictable; as the OSC’s own published annual reports indicate, only about 7 percent of federal employees who make disclosures about the kinds of problems that occurred at Y-12 end up (in yearly surveys) describing themselves as “satisfied” with the results.

Even as OSC has failed to protect whistle-blowing federal workers from the threat of reprisals, meanwhile, MSPB has chronically failed to perform its monitoring function . . . and has never performed the “OSC effectiveness” studies that congress mandated as the best way to make sure OSC does its job.And the consequences for these failures?

At Oak Ridge – where all-too-infrequent whistle-blowers over the years have warned about a “culture of fear” that prevents disclosures of the kinds of problems that erupted last July at Y-12 – the frighteningly dangerous consequences of the nation’s failure to protect its federal whistle-blowers can be seen with stark clarity.

The bottom line: What this nation needs most right now, if we want to prevent more 9/11s and more Y-12s in the days ahead, is for the President to direct his legal experts in the Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice to conduct a top-to-bottom review of OSC and MSPB, in order to gauge the real level of their effectiveness.

And if that review shows that our system for making sure federal government failures get reported is broken, then he – and we – must take immediate steps to repair that system.

Not to do so is to risk our safety . . . with potential consequences too horrific to contemplate.

[Investigative journalist Tom Nugent is the author of Death at Buffalo Creek (W.W. Norton), a book about the environmental impact of coal mining. Donald R. Soeken, LCSW-C, Ph.D., is the founder of the Whistleblower Support Fund and a licensed clinical social worker who has spent more than three decades counseling federal whistle-blowers.]