Atomic Fallout

The administration dumps its nuclear chief, but can anyone else do better?

Linton Brooks

In June 2005, we walked into the Washington office of National Nuclear Security Administration chief Linton Brooks. He was leaning over his shoes, looking slightly flummoxed. He paused and looked up at the visiting reporters, still holding his shoelaces.

“Yes, there’s the headline,” he sighed. “The man responsible for nuclear weapons can’t even tie his own shoes.”

Brooks’ fatalism was not unfounded. Recent news reports had not been kind to his agency, an arm of the Department of Energy that oversees the nuclear weapons complex. In particular, reporters were fixated on security woes at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the disappearance of classified computer disks had prompted a monthslong shutdown of the facility.

Those “missing” disks, in fact, never existed. But it was a major blow to the NNSA’s credibility, and it amplified perceptions of mismanagement at Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

Unfortunately for Brooks, Los Alamos was unable to shed its image as the problem child of the nuclear labs family. In late October 2006, police stumbled upon thumb drives containing classified information from Los Alamos during a meth bust in a trailer park.

On Jan. 4, Brooks finally took the fall.

While news of his dismissal was overshadowed by a major shake-up in the top echelons of the military and the intelligence community, it came at a critical time for the future of the nuclear weapons complex. With very little public attention, the NNSA is embarking on a project called Complex 2030—an ambitious plan to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons facilities. That effort is about to build serious momentum with the selection of a design for the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a new nuclear weapon that some critics worry could lead to the resumption of underground testing.

For Brooks, the firing offense may not have been the security breaches but failing to inform his boss, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, about computer hacking that compromised the personal information of Energy Department contractors. Brooks learned in September 2005 that the computers were hacked, but he didn’t inform senior Energy Department officials until months later.

Brooks’ explanation for the delay was the political equivalent of fumbling with his laces.

“It appears that each side of that organization assumed that the other side had made the appropriate notification to the deputy secretary,” Brooks told members of a congressional oversight committee.

“That’s hogwash,” replied Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who is now the committee’s ranking minority member.

Barton and another Republican sent a letter to Secretary Bodman in June demanding Brooks’ ouster. With usual Washington speed, six months passed before Brooks got the ax.

That Brooks presided over a nuclear weapons complex with serious problems is not in doubt: Security lapses led to clampdowns, which in turn hurt morale at the labs. But it’s hard to square the unceremonious dismissal of Brooks, a highly regarded public servant, with the treatment that other administration appointees got. After all, while New Orleans drowned, Michael (“heckuva job“) Brown was praised by President Bush for his work at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Paul Wolfowitz—who predicted that Iraqi oil revenues could pay for reconstruction—sits comfortably at the World Bank. And even Donald (“freedom is untidy“) Rumsfeld, the recently ousted Pentagon chief, won final commendations from Bush as a “superb leader in a time of change.”

The signs pointing to the NNSA chief’s downfall, it turns out, were there in our 2005 interview with Brooks.

“I’ve been a little surprised at the insatiable desire—a combination of the 24-hour news cycle and the Congress—to know everything now,” he said of the security breaches. “In fact, when problems occur, the one thing you can almost always be certain of is that your initial understanding is wrong.”

An example of that, Brooks continued, was the case of the “missing” Los Alamos disks.

“Almost everything we thought was true in the first 96 hours turns out not to have been true,” he said.

Brooks was right. The disks never even existed; a simple clerical error—nonexistent bar codes—led officials to chase after phantom equipment. That same summer, the Project on Government Oversight, a frequent critic of the nuclear labs, had hosted a dramatic press conference featuring the tearful wife of Tommy Hook, a Los Alamos whistleblower who had just been hospitalized after a savage beating. The assault, it was hinted, was linked to upcoming congressional testimony on fraud at the lab. His wife’s dramatic appearance sparked a flurry of press stories. Was Hook the victim of official reprisal? Were rogue operatives at work? Had nuclear weapons scientists taken matters into their own hands?

In fact, the truth was more banal: According to later accounts, Hook’s night of whistleblowing activities included a lap dance and drinks at the strip club where he was beaten. Few papers reported the eventual unfolding of events.

NNSA is an obscure agency in a department that has long been considered a government backwater. Created in 2000 amid the fallout from the Wen Ho Lee scandal, NNSA’s official status is “quasi-autonomous.” That adjective gets to the heart of the problem: The agency has multiple lines of authority and overlapping responsibilities that make decision making hard and accountability elusive.

“In theory, it was a good idea to separate nuclear weapons from the day-to-day White House political considerations that encumber any Cabinet-level agency,” said Phil Coyle, a former associate director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and now a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information. “But in practice it has only played into the perception that the NNSA and its contractors are not accountable to higher-level authorities, in this case the secretary of energy.”

But firing Brooks won’t fix the labs, and the administration has yet to answer a fundamental question: What would they have had him do differently? We suspect Brooks’ answer would have been much like his response to our questions. When we asked him 18 months ago about why he was unable to persuade Congress to fund the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a controversial push to design a bunker-busting nuke, he said, “I don’t know what I would have done differently, but we’ll see.”

The critics were right: Linton Brooks failed to fix the labs, but who can? Like Charlie Brown in his eternal quest to kick the football, we wonder if Brooks ever really had a chance. As for why he was fired—and why now—we suspect that Brooks is asking the same question.