Energy Department might not release disbanded committee’s report

Weeks after the Energy Department's nuclear weapons agency dismissed its independent expert advisory committee, the agency is now evaluating whether to release the principal report by that committee, officials said this week.

"The options are you'll either get the whole report or a sanitized version, or the report will be withheld as 'Official Use Only,'" said an Energy Department official who asked not to be identified.

The National Nuclear Security Administration's 15-member advisory committee finished a report on the agency's activities this past spring. The Federal Advisory Committee Act requires that reports by such committees be made public.

NNSA officials have refused to release it so far, however, saying it is being scrutinized by the administration's general counsel's office.

"Apparently they're giving it to someone who's looking over every word. They've brought a specialist in … a special lawyer with an extra large magnifying glass," the official said.

NNSA's defense programs office has recommended that the 35-page document be withheld on grounds that information contained in it is "dated" and "sensitive," the official said.

The freezing of the report and NNSA's recently reported decision to dissolve the committee in late June have drawn criticism from Representative Edward Markey, D-Mass.

U.S. law requires NNSA to "release copies of any reports, where possible, and send such copies to the Library of Congress," he said in a July 29 statement.

"When [the committee members] submitted the report, they were originally told it would be publicly released. Then it was immediately stamped 'For Official Use Only.' Now, some year and a half later, [NNSA is] finally deciding to do something about it and it's undergoing a review from the general counsel's office," said Markey spokesman Benn Tannenbaum.

Department Seeks to "Close Itself Off"

Markey, in a July 29 letter to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, inquired why the report had not been released, why quarterly meetings of the committee ended in May 2002 and why the committee was dismissed in June through e-mail rather than through notification in the Federal Register as required by advisory committee act.

"The Advisory Committee was created under the auspices of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which means that Congress and the public must be kept informed about the activities-including disbanding-of the committee," he wrote.

Markey added that the Energy Department has endorsed legislation passed by the House this year that would exempt it from the FACA requirements.

That, coupled with the dismissal of the committee, he wrote, "suggest that the Department of Energy is seeking to close itself off from any independent outside expert advice regarding its nuclear weapons programs."

NNSA spokesman Bryan Wilkes said NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks would continue to receive advice from a three-member group called the Nuclear Weapons Council, which consists of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the undersecretary of energy for nuclear security.

"I am uncomfortable with this situation, as the NWC is composed entirely of government officials, and therefore is not really suited to perform the functions of a federal advisory committee," Markey wrote.

He described the committee, appointed by former NNSA Administrator John Gordon, as "the one forum for honest, unbiased external review of its nuclear policies."

Controversial Subjects

The committee's charter required it to evaluate and make recommendations on NNSA activities, including assessments from a policy, performance and scientific perspective of programs, projects and facilities.

Committee members contacted said they did not recall anything particularly controversial about the report.

"I don't think we were exactly trying to burn the house down or anything. I think we were trying to work within the system and be constructive. So I don't think there is anything terribly earthshaking in the report," said Ellen Williams, a University of Maryland physics professor.

The committee did, however, review two initiatives the Bush administration is advocating this year that have been politically controversial: reducing the time needed to prepare for a nuclear test and the Advanced Concepts Initiative, which could include research and development on low-yield nuclear weapons for attacking bunkers and on warheads for destroying deeply buried chemical and biological weapons.

Committee member and University of California at Berkeley professor Raymond Jeanloz said the report, the final version of which he has not seen, might challenge some assumptions the administration has used to argue for those initiatives.

He said, for instance, while administration officials have urged reducing legal restrictions on research and development ostensibly to enable nuclear weapons designers to exercise their skills, the committee found that the initiative mainly involved using old designs.

"Either they're really going to start working on advanced concepts that are really new designs, in which case it seems like they are pushing toward resumption of nuclear testing if we ever put those designs into stockpile. Or, alternatively, this whole story about how we need advanced concepts to exercise the creativity of our designers is really a sham," he said.

Jeanloz said further that the preparation time for resuming nuclear tests was found to be not a question of physical readiness, but rather of diagnosing a suspected problem and developing a test to deal with it.

The committee was told by the national nuclear laboratories that "the nation would be able to perform a test in 3 to 6 months" if the goal was simply to produce an explosion, he said.

"From the labs' point of view, until they know why they would have to have a test to address some hypothetical technical problem, they don't know how long it would take them. So this whole business of a three-year, or a one-and-a-half year, or a half-year delay before they can test is incredibly artificial," he said.

Jeanloz and other committee members said they have not yet concluded that the NNSA's delay indicates an attempt to suppress the results of the report.

"I don't think NNSA is trying to bury things right now. I think they're confused, and in a state of confusion, they can end up doing what I think would hurt them in the long run, which is not to release this whole thing," Jeanloz said.

"At this point, one can say either they are trying to do something illegal or they are just being slow and not being very responsive because that's their nature. I just don't know," said Sidney Drell, a professor of theoretical physics at Stanford University.