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A Special Investigative Panel

President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board

JUNE 1999


On March 18, 1999, President William J. Clinton requested that the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) undertake an inquiry and issue a report on “the security threat at the Department of Energy’s weapons labs and the adequacy of the measures that have been taken to address it."

Specifically, the President asked the PFIAB to "address the nature of the present counterintelligence security threat, the way in which it has evolved over the last two decades and the steps we have taken to counter it, as well as to recommend any additional steps that may be needed." He also asked the PFIAB "to deliver its completed report to the Congress, and to the fullest extent possible consistent with our national security, release an unclassified version to the public."

In response, the Honorable Warren B. Rudman, Chairman of PFIAB, appointed board members Ms. Ann Z. Caracristi, Dr. Sidney Drell, and Mr. Stephen Friedman to form the Special Investigative Panel and obtained detailees from several federal agencies (CIA, DOD, FBI) to augment the work of the PFIAB staff. Over the past three months, the panel and staff interviewed more than 100 witnesses, reviewed more than 700 documents encompassing thousands of pages, and conducted onsite research and interviews at five of the Department of Energy’s national laboratories and plants: Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Pantex, and Sandia.

The panel has produced a report and an appendix of supporting documents, both of which are unclassified to the fullest extent possible. A large volume of classified material, which was also reviewed and distilled for this report, has been relegated to a second appendix that is available only to authorized recipients. This report examines:


For the past two decades, the Department of Energy has embodied science at its best and security of secrets at its worst.

Within DOE are a number of the crown jewels of the world’s government–sponsored scientific research and development organizations. With its record as the incubator for the work of many talented scientists and engineers—including many Nobel prize winners—DOE has provided the nation with far–reaching advantages. Its discoveries not only helped the United States to prevail in the Cold War, they undoubtedly will continue to provide both technological benefits and inspiration for the progress of generations to come. The vitality of its national laboratories is derived to a great extent from their ability to attract talent from the widest possible pool, and they should continue to capitalize on the expertise of immigrant scientists and engineers. However, we believe that the dysfunctional structure at the heart of the Department has too often resulted in the mismanagement of security in weapons–related activities and a lack of emphasis on counterintelligence.

DOE was created in 1977 and heralded as the centerpiece of the federal solution to the energy crisis that had stunned the American economy. A vital part of this new initiative was the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), the legacy agency of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and inheritor of the national programs to develop safe and reliable nuclear weapons. The concept, at least, was straightforward: take the diverse and dispersed energy research centers of the nation, bring them under an umbrella organization with other energy–related enterprises, and spark their scientific progress through closer contacts and centralized management.

At the birth of DOE, the brilliant scientific breakthroughs of the nuclear weapons laboratories came with a troubling record of security administration. Twenty years later, virtually every one of its original problems persists.

However, the brilliant scientific breakthroughs at the nuclear weapons laboratories came with a very troubling record of security administration. For example, classified documents detailing the designs of the most advanced nuclear weapons were found on library shelves accessible to the public at the Los Alamos laboratory. Employees and researchers were receiving little, if any, training or instruction regarding espionage threats. Multiple chains of command and standards of performance negated accountability, resulting in pervasive inefficiency, confusion, and mistrust. Competition among laboratories for contracts, and among researchers for talent, resources, and support distracted management from security issues. Fiscal management was bedeviled by sloppy accounting. Inexact tracking of the quantities and flows of nuclear materials was a persistent worry. Geographic decentralization fractured policy implementation and changes in leadership regularly depleted the small reservoirs of institutional memory. Permeating all of these issues was a prevailing cultural attitude among some in the DOE scientific community that regarded the protection of nuclear know–how with either fatalism or naiveté.

Twenty years later, every one of these problems still existed. Most still exist today.

In response to these problems, the Department has been the subject of a nearly unbroken history of dire warnings and attempted but aborted reforms. A cursory review of the open-source literature on the DOE record of management presents an abysmal picture. Second only to its world–class intellectual feats has been its ability to fend off systemic change. Over the last dozen years, DOE has averaged some kind of major departmental shake–up every two to three years. No President, Energy Secretary, or Congress has been able to stem the recurrence of fundamental problems. All have been thwarted time after time by the intransigence of this institution. The Special Investigative Panel found a large organization saturated with cynicism, an arrogant disregard for authority, and a staggering pattern of denial. For instance, even after President Clinton issued Presidential Decision Directive 61 ordering that the Department make fundamental changes in security procedures, compliance by Department bureaucrats was grudging and belated.

The panel found a department saturated with cynicism, an arrogant disregard for authority, and a staggering pattern of denial.

Time after time over the past few decades, officials at DOE headquarters and the weapons labs themselves have been presented with overwhelming evidence that their lackadaisical oversight could lead to an increase in the nuclear threat against the United States. Throughout its history, the Department has been the subject of scores of critical reports from the General Accounting Office (GAO), the intelligence community, independent commissions, private management consultants, its Inspector General, and its own security experts. It has repeatedly attempted reforms. Yet the Department’s ingrained behavior and values have caused it to continue to falter and fail.


We believe that Secretary of Energy Richardson, in attempting to deal with many critical security matters facing the Department, is on the right track in some, though not all, of his changes. We concur with and encourage many of his recent initiatives, and we are heartened by his aggressive approach and command of the issues. But we believe that he has overstated the case when he asserts, as he did several weeks ago, that "Americans can be reassured: our nation’s nuclear secrets are, today, safe and secure."

After a review of more than 700 reports and studies, thousands of pages of classified and unclassified source documents, interviews with scores of senior federal officials, and visits to several of the DOE laboratories at the heart of this inquiry, the Special Investigative Panel has concluded the Department of Energy is incapable of reforming itself—bureaucratically and culturally—in a lasting way, even under an activist Secretary.

The panel has found that DOE and the weapons laboratories have a deeply rooted culture of low regard for and, at times, hostility to security issues, which has continually frustrated the efforts of its internal and external critics, notably the GAO and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Therefore, a reshuffling of offices and lines of accountability may be a necessary step toward meaningful reform, but it almost certainly will not be sufficient.

Even if every aspect of the ongoing structural reforms is fully implemented, the most powerful guarantor of security at the nation’s weapons laboratories will not be laws, regulations, or management charts. It will be the attitudes and behavior of the men and women who are responsible for the operation of the labs each day. These will not change overnight, and they are likely to change only in a different cultural environment—one that values security as a vital and integral part of day–to–day activities and believes it can coexist with great science.

We are convinced that when Secretary Richardson vacates the office his successor is not likely to have a comparable appreciation of the gravity of the Department’s past problems, nor a comparable interest in resolving them. The next Secretary of Energy will not have spent months at the tip of the sword created by the recent public outcry over DOE mismanagement of national secrets. Indeed, the core of the Department’s bureaucracy is quite capable of undoing Secretary Richardson’s reforms, and may well be inclined to do so if given the opportunity.

Ultimately, the nature of the institution and the structure of the incentives under a culture of scientific research require great attention if they are to be made compatible with the levels of security and the degree of command–and–control warranted where the research and stewardship of nuclear weaponry is concerned. Yet it must be done.


The PFIAB panel is fully aware of the many recent allegations of management failures surrounding the Department of Energy and questions about the subsequent roles of entities such as the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Much of the research we conducted has relevance to these allegations. However, the depth and the complexity of the issues call for examinations by institutions with greater resources and a wider charter: namely, Congress and standing executive agencies of the federal government.

In the 90 days of our inquiry, the PFIAB panel conducted numerous interviews with senior federal officials who agreed to speak candidly—with the understanding that they would not be identified by name—about DOE’s problems and recent events. On balance, the panel finds that some very damaging security compromises may have occurred, as alleged by some in recent weeks. But we believe that in matters of intelligence and counterintelligence, one cannot brush off the reality that conclusions are often intrinsically based on probabilities, rather than certainties.

Leaders, of course, are often obliged to act, and should act, based on the probability of impending danger, not only its certainty. And those entrusted with the public weal are indisputably served better by having more information about risks than less. So the panel would like to note the contributions of those who have helped to raise the public’s awareness of the risks to national security posed by problems at DOE. Although we do not concur with all of their conclusions, we believe that both intelligence officials at the Department of Energy and the members of the Cox Committee made substantial and constructive contributions to understanding and resolving security problems at DOE. As we note later in this report, we concur on balance with the damage assessment of espionage losses conducted by the Director of Central Intelligence. We also concur with the findings of the independent review of that assessment by Admiral David Jeremiah and his panel.

Our mandate from President Clinton was restricted to an analysis of the structural and management problems in the Department’s security and counterintelligence operations. We abided by that. We also recognize the unique nature of the assignment given to us by the President. Never before in its history of more than 35 years has the PFIAB prepared a report for release to the general public. As a result, we have taken pains to ensure that the language of this report is "plain English," not bureaucratese, and that the findings of the report are stated directly and candidly, not with the indirection and euphemisms often employed by policy insiders.


Our panel has concluded that the Department of Energy, when faced with a profound public responsibility, has failed. Therefore, this report suggests two alternative organizational solutions, both of which we believe would substantially insulate the weapons laboratories from many of DOE’s historical problems and promote the building of a responsible culture over time. We also offer recommendations for improving various aspects of security and counterintelligence at DOE, such as personnel assurance, cyber–security, program management, and interdepartmental cooperation under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

The weapons research and stockpile management functions should be placed wholly within a new semi–autonomous agency within DOE that has a clear mission, streamlined bureaucracy, and drastically simplified lines of authority and accountability. Useful lessons along these lines can be taken from the National Security Agency (NSA) or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) within the Department of Defense or the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Department of Commerce. The other alternative is a wholly independent agency, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). There was substantial debate among the members of the panel about these two alternatives. Both have strengths and weaknesses. In the final analysis, the decision rests in the hands of the President and the Congress, and we trust that they will give serious deliberation to the merits and shortcomings of the alternatives before enacting major reforms. We all agree, nonetheless, that the labs should never be subordinated to the Department of Defense.

With either proposal it will be important for the weapons labs to maintain effective scientific contact on nonclassified scientific research with the other DOE labs and the wider scientific community. To do otherwise would work to the detriment of the nation’s scientific progress and security over the long run. This argument draws on history: nations that honor and advance freedom of inquiry have fared better than those who have sought to arbitrarily suppress and control the community of science.

The nuclear weapons and research functions of DOE need more autonomy, a clearer mission, a streamlined bureaucracy, and increased accountability.

However, we would submit that we do not face an either/or proposition. The past 20 years have provided a controlled experiment of a sort, the results of which point to institutional models that hold promise. Organizations such as NASA and DARPA have advanced scientific and technological progress while maintaining a respectable record of security. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy, with its decentralized structure, confusing matrix of cross–cutting and overlapping management, and shoddy record of accountability has advanced scientific and technological progress, but at the cost of an abominable record of security with deeply troubling threats to American national security.

Thomas Paine once said that "government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one." This report finds that DOE’s performance, throughout its history, should have been regarded as intolerable.

We believe the results and implications of this experiment are clear. It is time for the nation’s leaders to act decisively in the defense of America’s national security.

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