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Nuclear Agency Rope-a-Dopes Pulitzer Prize-Winner

Internal NNSA email acquired by POGO.

In the fall of 2012, two time Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist Dana Priest wrote a surprisingly supportive two-part series on the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The first piece, “U.S. nuclear arsenal is ready for overhaul,” looked at the agency’s ambitious and extravagant ten-year modernization plan. The second, “The B61 bomb: A case study in needs and costs,” was a case study of one of the crown jewels of that plan, a program to extend the life of the B61 nuclear bomb. But an internal email obtained by the Project On Government Oversight shows that even a reporter as accomplished as Priest may have been unwittingly manipulated by the nuclear agency.

Both pieces focused on the astronomical costs associated with maintaining the nuclear stockpile, but what the series lacked was context and an analysis of how the NNSA had mismanaged its resources to run up this bill. The series heavily quoted nuclear complex officials who have a bureaucratic interest in promoting the notion that our nuclear arsenal is “decrepit” and “neglected.”

Shortly after the series was published, POGO posted a response detailing where additional information would have provided a more complete and accurate picture of the NNSA’s needs verses wants. Ms. Priest stood by her story and normally that would have been the end of it. But a 2013 internal email obtained by POGO shows that the NNSA “choreographed” her experience:

"Being subjected to a choreographed dog and pony show and to government minders comes with the job, especially at secure facilities..." ~Dana Priest

“Yeh, Ms. Priest was subject to a serious rope-a-dope by Neile [Miller, NNSA Principal Deputy Administer] and the Lab Directors. She just mirrored what she saw, lab choreography was perfect, and nobody told her what she didn’t know...”

When asked to comment on the email, Ms. Priest responded by saying:

“Being subjected to a choreographed dog and pony show and to government minders comes with the job, especially at secure facilities. As always, I did not base my the [sic] stories only on the "show" or the minders. I tried only to lay out for readers the tremendous cost of maintaining the decades-old nuclear status quo. Some readers critiqued the fact that I did not challenge the underlying U.S. nuclear policy or the need for such a vast arsenal. Those are valid questions, but that was not the purpose of my articles. As a fan of POGO for many years, I appreciate your efforts to dig into these matter and hope you continue to do so.”

It’s impossible to say precisely how the series may or may not have influenced public or Congressional opinion about NNSA and the weapon’s complex. But in the years since Ms. Priest’s front-page articles were published, NNSA’s budget for weapons production activities has only increased, despite President Obama’s 2009 pledge to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons. By September 2012, when the Post’s series was published, Congress was already beginning to work on the fiscal year 2014 budget and it was in that year that the NNSA’s budget jumped up dramatically. Since then, it has essentially stayed level with the agency’s yearly funding requests. Before the series was published the actual funding levels were much lower than the agency’s requests. By 2020 the NNSA estimates that the weapons activity budget alone will be well over $10 billion per year; the Post’s series, apparently shaped by NNSA, may well have helped lay the groundwork for that budget increase.

Chart based on data from the Congressional Research Service
Chart based on data from the Congressional Research Service

At the time of the article’s publication, both the NNSA and its contractors may have been feeling the need for some good PR. In July 2012, just a few months before the Post’s articles were published, three protestors broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex. They made it past three sets of fences, security patrols, and the area where deadly force is authorized, to stand outside a building where almost the entire U.S. stockpile of highly enriched uranium is housed. One of those protestors was an 82-year-old nun.

The contractor in charge of security at the site was later fired, but the incident was just one of many examples showing the difficulty the NNSA has had managing its army of contractors. But Ms. Priest’s series barely mentions the contractors that receive hundreds of millions of dollars every year to manage the nuclear weapons complex. Her lapse in examining the role of nuclear contractors is surprising given her extraordinary Washington Post series “Top Secret America,” which opened the eyes of the American public to the size and power of the intelligence contractor community.

Comparatively, her Post colleague Dan Zak drew a more complete picture of the relationship in his piece on the Y-12 break in. Referencing the Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee, Zak wrote: “The subcommittee, as a body, wonders if the department had farmed out the stewardship of nuclear assets to contractors who self-police and self-appraise, and therefore continue to collect fees while cutting corners.”

"a White House official recently described the labs to me as being among ‘the biggest rogue elements in the US government,..." ~Robert Alvarez

Reporters at other publications writing about the nuclear weapons complex during this time found that the NNSA poorly juggles funding for what it needs verses what it wants. For example, a March 2012 Reuters article examined how despite President Obama’s nuclear disarmament goals NNSA non-proliferation programs were the ones feeling the budgetary squeeze.

Later in the year, NNSA expert Robert Alvarez wrote a piece for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about management of the nuclear weapons labs. The article took a close look at the effective lobbying by the contractors who manage the labs and concluded that the management structure of the NNSA needed to change. “Over the decades, the national laboratories—semi-autonomous, contractor-run components of the nuclear complex—have not been shy about attempting to remain free of outside control. Lobbying by the nuclear weapons labs has gone largely unchecked; a White House official recently described the labs to me as being among ‘the biggest rogue elements in the US government,’” Alvarez wrote.

The NNSA has proven time and time again that they aren’t very good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Ms. Priest’s series touched on this briefly when she reported that for the past 26 years the NNSA’s contractor management has been deemed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) a “high-risk” area vulnerable to waste, fraud, and abuse. But she failed to dig deeper and illustrate exactly what that means for taxpayers.

If she had, she would have found that the NNSA regularly focuses its spending on new and expensive projects instead of on maintaining basic systems. For example, in 2013, the Y-12 National Security Complex spent over $50 million on a new security system but failed to meet NNSA’s basic mandate to effectively integrate security sensors and security guards.

If the agency could get something so important, though relatively small, so wrong, how can we possibly trust that they will be any better with their larger modernization efforts? The $50 million will pale in comparison to the billions of dollars taxpayers are going to shell out for other NNSA projects.

The NNSA plans to spend $297.6 billion on modernization projects over the next 25 years. Yet the agency has already managed to bungle one of the first parts of the overall modernization effort. In 2012, NNSA discovered that the contractor in charge of designing the new Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Y-12 did not adequately manage its subcontractors and, as a result, the building had a glaring flaw: after spending $500 million on the UPF design alone, NNSA found that the building wouldn’t be tall enough to house the necessary uranium processing equipment. The cost to re-design and raise the ceiling 13 feet added an additional $540 million onto the price tag—more than doubling what we’ll spend on just the design. And just this year, the independent science advisory group JASON found that NNSA’s proposed strategy for replacing and modernizing warheads is unstable and erratic, ultimately concluding that “program instability poses a significant threat to NNSA’s mission-critical capabilities.”

When it comes to investigating an agency that spends billions of taxpayer dollars every year, it’s important to look at every angle of the story lest you fall victim to an agency rope-a-dope.