Security debate shadows nuclear chief's departure

NNSA's Thomas D’Agostino NNSA's Thomas D’Agostino National Academy of Sciences photo

A top U.S. nuclear official is set to retire next week in good standing with the Obama administration, even though a major security scandal prompted a number of watchdogs to call for his resignation months ago.

When Thomas D’Agostino announced last month that he would step down as administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration on Jan. 18, Energy Secretary Steven Chu praised him as a "talented leader" of the semiautonomous Energy Department office that oversees the U.S. nuclear security complex and conducts nonproliferation projects around the world.

"From leading a vast acceleration of the department’s efforts to reduce nuclear dangers at home and abroad, to overseeing our efforts to protect public health and safety by cleaning up the nation’s Cold War nuclear legacy, Tom has earned the title one major news outlet gave him: “undersecretary for saving the world,'" the Cabinet official said in written remarks.

Chu's statement did not mention that the veteran U.S. nuclear systems insider had presided over several high-profile embarrassments, including a July break-in at a bomb-grade uranium storage area of the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee; allegations of cheating on security exams by contract personnel hired to guard the same site; and a surge in expenses anticipated from refurbishing B-61 nuclear gravity bombs and building a new uranium processing plant.

D'Agostino's agency took shape in 2000 to address security problems and cost overruns that plagued U.S. atomic arms activities under full Energy Department control, and issue experts stressed that such lapses are not exclusive to his five-and-a-half-year tenure. Still, the split over the NNSA chief’s performance taps into an ongoing debate over how the nation manages its nuclear weapons infrastructure, with various sides arguing alternately to grant the agency and its contractors greater independence, strip it of all autonomy, or take other actions to reshuffle oversight of the nuclear weapons complex.

Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee last year led a charge to eliminate Energy Department oversight of NNSA operations and increase the independence of private firms working under the atomic office. Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, and GOP colleagues on the panel's Strategic Forces Subcommittee blamed Energy management for numerous schedule and budgetary overruns in NNSA projects, as well as for tying the hands of scientists at the nation’s nuclear weapon laboratories.

The Y-12 infiltration derailed the GOP-led initiative in the last Congress by dealing a critical blow to "the myth of contractor competence," Robert Alvarez, a former Energy security adviser in the Clinton administration, wrote in an article published last month by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Observers assigned D'Agostino varying degrees of blame for the incident, in which three intruders passed by malfunctioning perimeter sensors and security cameras that had been out of service for months.

“How he could have survived that for one minute is beyond me,” said Peter Stockton, a special investigator at the Project on Government Oversight. The Clinton-era Energy insider argued that the NNSA leader should have obtained advance warning of the surveillance problems from his agency's site offices and then ensured the problems were addressed by private companies managing operations and security at the facility.

"I don’t know whether he was aware of [the nonfunctioning cameras] or not, but he should have been," Stockton told Global Security Newswire in a telephone interview.

Alvarez also called for D’Agostino to resign in light of the July break-in. Observers were failing last summer to ask “what responsibility does the head of the national security agency hold in terms of his breach,” he told GSN then.

Another expert, though, attributed the Y-12 breach to "systemic problems."

"I don’t think that the solutions to those problems are going to be addressed by attacking the person who’s leaving" the top NNSA post, said Nickolas Roth, a policy fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. Still, "very serious things went wrong in the Y-12 incident, and the new administrator needs to make sure that things like that can’t happen again," he added.

Roth voiced opposition to full NNSA autonomy, and instead urged the Energy secretary to "take an extremely active role in making sure that the administrator has both the political backing and the resources … to deal with the sort of problems that the NNSA is facing."

"There are certainly redundancies and inefficiencies between the relationship within NNSA and DOE," he added. "I don’t think anyone disagrees that finding ways of streamlining those things is a good idea, but you have to do that in a way that doesn’t diminish accountability and oversight."

In a bid to address problems seen in relying on private firms to guard nuclear-weapon operations, Turner last year proposed shifting responsibility for their protection from the Energy Department to the military. Experts, though, have warned existing statutes might conflict with the plan advanced by the lawmaker, who chaired the Strategic Forces Subcommittee prior to the start of the new congressional session last week.

The fiscal 2013 defense authorization law signed by President Obama this month mandates creation of a congressional panel to examine an array of options for altering oversight of the nuclear weapons complex. The legislation calls for the bipartisan group to convene its first meeting by March 1, submit initial findings within 180 days of the law’s Jan. 2 enactment and present final recommendations by Feb. 1 of next year.

The legislation also demands an independent study into the possibility of expanding "direct sponsorship" of the nuclear laboratories to the Defense and Homeland Security departments, as well as to intelligence offices. The laboratories are solely under Energy Department oversight at present.

It was unclear how much attention such management reform initiatives would receive from Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who is succeeding Turner as head of the strategic forces panel. Neither Rogers' office nor Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee responded to requests for comment.

D’Agostino is slated to be succeeded on an interim basis by Neile Miller, who now serves as the agency’s principal deputy administrator. Miller previously managed a national security portfolio that included NNSA activities as head of the White House Management and Budget Office, and she served as the Energy Department’s top budget official from 2007 to 2010.

Stockton suggested the incoming leader “has the background" to tamp down on cost overruns at the nuclear office, but added it remains to be seen "whether she can get the horses to actually carry anything out.”

A longer-term occupant for the post must receive backing from President Obama and confirmation from the Senate. The White House will provide more information on the search for a successor, NNSA spokesman Joshua McConaha stated by email.
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