At a congressional hearing today, both Democrats and Republicans assailed Los Alamos National Laboratory managers and their Department of Energy supervisors for what they view as the same old security problems. This, despite the fact that Los Alamos, the nation's premiere nuclear weapons center, has been under new management for seven months.
House members of the Energy and Commerce committee, charged with oversight of Los Alamos, today threatened everything from yanking the Lab's security responsibilities to shutting it down entirely.
"There is an absolute inability and unwillingness to address the most routine security issues at this Laboratory," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. "If we have to shut down the Laboratory, then so be it. But we ought to be able to get security right at Los Alamos."
Management and security scandals have plagued the Lab for years. Most recently, as reported exclusively by CBS News, a 22-year old former Lab employee named Jessica Quintana walked out unchallenged with hundreds of pages of classified documents. Police found them by accident during a drug raid on the trailer home of her roommate. The FBI's criminal investigation of the case is ongoing.
"Why she hasn't been arrested yet is a mystery to us," an insider tells CBS News.
Sources also tell CBS News that Quintana had access to sensitive secrets including underground nuclear weapons test data and the code that keeps nuclear weapons locked in case they are stolen. In one of several interviews with the FBI, Quintana told officials that security at the Lab was so lax, she was never checked when entering or leaving, and it was easy for her to walk out with hundreds of pages in her backpack, as well as several portable computer storage devices.
The Laboratory and Department of Energy have repeatedly promised Congress big changes. The biggest one was supposed to happen when the federal government put the contract to manage the Lab up for bid for the first time in history. The University of California had held the contract since the Lab's beginnings in 1943. Last June, a new consortium of four organizations took control. But the new faces turned out to look a lot like the old ones, with the University of California retaining a large portion of the contract. That, suggested members of Congress today, may be the problem.
In response, the Lab's director, Michael Anastasio, took responsibility for the most recent security breach and tried to assure fed-up members of Congress that everything is under control.
"We took immediate action when we learned of the breach," Anastasio said, but "there will not be a silver bullet solution because there are none."
Los Alamos National Laboratory employs more than 9,000 people and has an annual budget of $2.2 billion. Taxpayers have financed tens of millions of dollars in security upgrades at the Lab in recent years amidst various scandals.
A recent Inspector General's report said that Lab security remains inadequate despite all the expense.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., likened the pattern of security breaches followed by Lab promises to tighten security to "groundhog day." Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich, said "it's dejavu all over again."