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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Nuclear Agency Head Dismissed for Lapses

WASHINGTON (AP) - Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman on Thursday dismissed the chief of the country's nuclear weapons program because of security breakdowns at the Los Alamos, N.M., laboratory and other facilities.

Linton Brooks said he would leave in two weeks to three weeks as head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, a post he held since May 2003.

Bodman said the nuclear agency under Brooks, a former ambassador and arms control negotiator, had not adequately fixed security problems. "I have decided it is time for new leadership at the NNSA," Bodman said.

Brooks told agency workers in a statement, "This is not a decision that I would have preferred ... (but) I accept the decision and you need to do likewise."

He characterized the demand for his resignation as "based on the principle of accountability that should govern all public service."

Brooks was reprimanded in June for failing to report to Bodman a security breach of computers at an agency facility in Albuquerque, N.M., that resulted in the theft of files containing Social Security numbers and other personal data for 1,500 workers.

The theft did not become generally known, nor was Bodman made aware of it, for eight months.

Last fall, security at Los Alamos came into question anew. During a drug raid, authorities found classified nuclear-related documents at the home of a woman with top secret clearance who worked at the lab.

That security breach was especially troubling, the department's internal watchdog said, because tens of millions of dollars had been spent to upgrade computer security at Los Alamos. The lab is part of the nuclear weapons complex that Brooks' agency oversees.

"These management and security issues can have serious implications for the security of the United States," Bodman in a statement announcing Brooks' departure.

While the agency's management "has done its best to address these concerns, I do not believe that progress in correcting these issues has been adequate," Bodman said.

"Therefore, and after careful consideration, I have decided that it is time for new leadership at the NNSA," said Bodman

Bodman said an acting head of the agency will be named soon.

Brooks has more than 40 years of experience in national security and nuclear nonproliferation issues. He led the negotiating team that worked on the START arms reduction treaty signed with Russia in 1991.

Widely respected for his knowledge of nuclear weapons and nonproliferation issues, Brooks nevertheless has been a target of some members of Congress.

When it was learned that Brooks did not inform his superiors for eight months about the computer theft of data on 1,500 employees, Rep. Joe Barton last year sought Brooks' immediate dismissal.

"His departure is long overdue," Barton, R-Texas, said Thursday.

With Democrats now in charge of the House and Senate, there has been talk of hearings into the administration's response to security breaches at the labs.

"It will take more than a new boss to fix the problems, which are far more systemic and pervasive in nature," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is considering hearings.

Some lawmakers have criticized Brooks' pursuit of a bunker-buster bomb, a project promoted by Brooks but abandoned last year because of congressional opposition. Others have questioned whether Brooks' agency made a clear enough argument on behalf of the weapon.

At the same time, Brooks' agency has come under criticism for not making enough progress in working out an agreement with Russia for the disposal of tons of weapons-grade plutonium.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said he has been concerned "about the effectiveness" of the agency for some time and that Bodman now "has sent a clear message" that operations need to be improved.

In his message to employees, Brooks bemoaned the lack of progress in solving security problems at Los Alamos, saying the agency was formed "to prevent such management problems from occurring.

"We have not yet done so in over five years," he said.

The agency is responsible for managing the nuclear weapons complex that includes the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons research labs. The agency has more than 37,000 employees, most of them contractor personnel.

Congress created the agency within the Energy Department in response to the uproar over the Wen Ho Lee security lapses at Los Alamos in the late 1990s. The belief was that security would improve by putting all nuclear weapons programs under a semiautonomous agency.

But since then, there have been repeated security problems - most of them at Los Alamos - from misplaced and lost computer disks containing classified information to alleged misuse of credit cards, and last October's discovery of classified documents in a drug raid.
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