Pity Los Alamos' Whistle-Blowers

Commentary by Danielle Brian and Peter Stockton
Los Angeles Times
August 12, 2004

The latest round of missing classified information at Los Alamos National Laboratory has spurred lab, government and University of California officials to engage in the ritualistic and disingenuous performance of scratching their heads in disbelief and wonder.

In what seems like a never-ending saga of security breaches at the nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico -- which UC manages for the government -- two floppy disks believed to contain secret research information are unaccounted for.

It's hard to imagine why anyone would be surprised to hear about the latest security breakdown when the history of the lab shows a culture in which employees are punished for revealing wrongdoing.

Prospective whistle-blowers are afraid to approach their superiors at the lab about waste, fraud, abuse and national security breaches because of what has happened to those who did so earlier. Whistle-blowers are cast aside.

Take, for example, the notorious case of onetime security officers Glenn Walp and Steven Doran. They were experienced law enforcement officers hired by the lab to clear up corruption. Several months into the job, they uncovered financial fraud and security problems, including more than 200 stolen or missing computers. They were fired.

For months, leaders at Los Alamos lied about the severity of the problems being revealed by Walp and Doran. When all was said and done, UC shelled out more than $1 million in taxpayer-funded settlements to the two whistle-blowers.

Then there's the case of John Jennings. Jennings worked for Peter Bussolini, a senior lab official who was recently indicted on charges of defrauding the taxpayers of $328,000 in personal purchases, including camping gear. After Jennings alerted lab authorities about his boss' alleged fraud, the lab disclosed to Bussolini that Jennings was talking. Despite the fact that Bussolini allegedly threatened his life, Jennings courageously continued to assist an FBI investigation into the case. What thanks did Jennings get for exposing this corruption? He was transferred from his old job and is sitting, to this day, in an office with nothing to do.

In 2003, Los Alamos managers were caught red-handed thwarting an investigation into problems at the lab. They advised employees to "resist the temptation to spill your guts" and commented that "handwritten notes are especially damaging ... they are not easily disavowed." Management told employees in a memo that "finger-pointing will just make the program look bad." Surely these managers should have been reprimanded. But instead, the top official in the nuclear weapons complex, Undersecretary of Energy Linton Brooks, defended the comments in a memo, saying they "provide appropriate cautions for organizations undergoing inspections."

Corruption investigations go nowhere unless someone on the inside provides information to break the case. Yet, again and again, good citizens at Los Alamos who come forward are ostracized and abused, simply to protect the image of the lab and the Department of Energy.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, like many of his predecessors, has called for an end to whistle-blower retaliation. But like those before him, Abraham will fail without systemic policy changes to improve accountability and without underlings committed to making changes.

Abraham is unlikely to find this in Brooks. Brooks' two-year watch over the complex has been plagued by an unprecedented number of security breaches and a management staff more dedicated to plugging the leaks than fixing the problem. Given the severity and quantity of the breaches, one would have thought that Brooks would embrace Abraham's new security improvements. Yet in internal documents, Brooks has been at odds with the new directions at the Department of Energy. Even worse, his actions sustain and nurture a culture of retaliation rather than honesty.

*Danielle Brian is executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit government watchdog. Peter Stockton is a project senior investigator and was a special assistant on security issues to then- Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.