DOE

Investigation reveals troubles in nuclear security force

A report by the Department of Energy inspector general that wasn't disclosed to the public details late-night fights -- some resulting in death threats -- among agents responsible for transporting America's nuclear weapons.

The IG's inspection report delved into "unsuitable" behavior at the department's Office of Secure Transportation. Classified as "OFFICIAL USE ONLY," the report was recently released to Greenwire under the Freedom of Information Act.

DOE's watchdog was troubled by several incidents involving OST agents that were not reported to their superiors -- which could mean that individuals who are unfit for duty are shipping the nation's most dangerous nuclear materials across the country.

"We are concerned that the failure to report such activity could expose the Department to unnecessary risk," said the report, noting that certified agents are required to report troublesome incidents. "Otherwise there is an increased risk that unsuitable individuals could be allowed to protect nuclear weapons, weapon components and special nuclear material, raising possible national security concerns."

OST's mission has serious security implications, as it's responsible for the safe, secure transport of nuclear material owned by the government. The office is under the purview of the National Nuclear Security Administration, a DOE agency that looks after U.S. nuclear weapons.

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OST's forerunner, known as the Transportation and Safeguards Division, was established in 1975. NNSA touts the office's safety record on its website, saying OST agents have not released any radioactive material after covering 140 million miles.

Investigators for the department's IG apparently focused on the OST Agent Operations Eastern Command, which is based in Oak Ridge, Tenn. -- known for its role in the Manhattan Project and still home to several nuclear weapons processing and research facilities. According to the watchdog, 128 OST agents work at what's known as Eastern Operations in Oak Ridge.

The IG interviewed 19 agents for its report, finding that not only the commander in question but several other agents were involved in the incidents. Investigators conducted their field work between July 2013 and November 2014, traveling to OST facilities in Oak Ridge; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Washington, D.C.

The report was sent from Rickey Hass, DOE's deputy inspector general for audits and inspections. Copied on the document were some of the department's most senior officials, including its deputy secretary, chief of staff and general counsel.

The DOE IG probed several allegations against a squad commander, whose name is redacted from the report, including for "unsuitable, reportable behavior." In turn, the watchdog dug up seven incidents since 2004 that involved "physical or verbal altercations, some of which occurred off duty," and that were not reported to superiors, noting that three had happened since July 2012.

The most recent incident was the squad commander "threaten[ing] to kill" another OST official in early 2013. IG investigators could confirm there was "a heated discussion" between the two, but the commander denied making the threat. Senior OST officials, once they were made aware of the altercation five months after it happened, disciplined the squad commander and are investigating the matter.

Off-duty and on paid leave

Shelley Laver, a NNSA spokeswoman, said that pending review, the squad commander has been "temporarily removed" from the Human Reliability Program, a security program designed to ensure that agents are physically and mentally suitable for their sensitive work. He or she is no longer performing duties as a squad commander or federal agent and has been placed on paid leave.

"If it is determined after due process that the squad commander is not eligible to return to the HRP due to reliability concerns, then their HRP certification will be revoked and they will no longer be eligible for employment as a federal agent with the Department of Energy. Concomitantly, the squad commander was removed from the workplace and placed on administrative leave pending the completion of this HRP review," Laver said in an email.

There were other incidents involving this squad commander, according to the IG's report.

An "after-hours" altercation occurred at a training event in 2008 that resulted in an OST agent, whose name is also redacted from the report, being "restrained and removed from the premises." Reporting of the incident was shoddy, with the squad commander claiming to have reported it but an official saying that wasn't the case, remembering being only told about an agent being restrained and removed, not the preceding incident.

In addition, there was at least another incident involving the squad commander. The commander and an OST official "engaged in an after-hours physical altercation" in 2004, according to the IG's report.

The squad commander acknowledged only one of the incidents, while other agents disputed that account, leading the IG to uncover the seven incidents that were not reported. One official indicated to the IG that the new information demonstrated that the squad commander "had a long established pattern of anger issues."

OST agents ignored the rules by not initially reporting the incidents, according to the DOE watchdog.

"Agents, both staff and senior officials, appeared to ignore reporting requirements based on their own views of whether a particular incident was worthy of notification," said the IG's report.

Also uncovered by the IG was that in early 2013, an OST agent participated in training in early 2013 after not being cleared by agency medical staff. While taking part in "a strenuous training exercise," which included being outfitted in full tactical gear that weighed roughly 80 pounds, the agent was injured and filed a claim for a work-related injury.

Laver said the agent "suffered a muscle injury. He was placed on light duties after the injury and returned to full duties upon complete recovery."

Management at OST agreed with the IG's recommendations to emphasize that incidents need to be reported promptly and to stick to agency procedure when agents have medical issues. Consequently, OST staff members plan to conduct site visits to provide refresher training on reporting requirements and reinforce policies concerning medical restrictions.

With OST's problems coming to light in the watchdog's report, the IG learned that the office was also looking into the matter and would prepare its own independent review.

"OST is currently working with the IG to ensure that all the facts are made available to the HRP officials and the squad commander's supervision," Laver said.

'Need-to-know'

The IG's report describing problems at OST was not originally meant to be released to the public.

In late 2014, a summary of the report was posted on the DOE IG's website, noting that "the full report in this matter has been designated as for 'Official Use Only' and is not available for public release" (Greenwire, Dec. 1, 2014).

That six-paragraph summary was brief compared with the IG's full report. Greenwire obtained 20 pages of the report under FOIA, though the records are pockmarked with redactions because of the law's exemptions for privacy and law enforcement matters.

The report was closely held at DOE, with instructions that it not be disclosed outside the department without written approval by the IG.

"Appropriate safeguards should be provided for the report and access should be limited to Department of Energy officials who have a need-to-know," reads the report's title page, noting that its public disclosure will be determined by FOIA.

The DOE IG limited the report's distribution because it contained private information.

"Report INS-0-15-02 included Privacy Act restricted information and was, therefore, treated as Official Use Only. Consistent with our policy, a summary of the report [was posted] on our web site on November 24, 2014. In contrast, we respond to FOIA requests ... with an appropriately redacted version of the report itself," the DOE IG's office said in a statement to Greenwire.

Yet considering that the report has now been subject to several FOIA requests, the IG's office said it plans to post the report's redacted version on the watchdog's website.

Drunk on duty

The inspector general at DOE has looked into problems at OST in the past.

In November 2010, the watchdog found that some OST agents were drunk while on duty (Greenwire, Nov. 22, 2010). A memorandum from the IG noted that there were "16 alcohol-related incidents" involving agents between 2007 and 2009.

The department has had trouble implementing consistent alcohol and drug restrictions, according to another IG report from November 2009. The watchdog suggested in the report that a decision by DOE not to screen for additional drugs "may have contributed to delays in discovering the recently identified steroid use" among protective force personnel based in Oak Ridge.

The department IG has also uncovered problems looming ahead for OST as its workload increases in the coming years. The office has to transport dangerous nuclear weapons as its equipment ages -- and its agents are working more and more.

In a June 2012 report, the DOE watchdog noted that the office's fleet of armored tractors was "beyond its operational life as of December 2011." Further, its agents were incurring overtime "at levels approaching those considered not to be sustainable over the long term."

Reporters Katherine Ling and Hannah Northey contributed.

Twitter: @KevinBogardus | Email: kbogardus@eenews.net

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