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Nuclear weapons chief ousted

Linton F. Brooks, under fire for his handling of security lapses at U.S. labs and weapons sites, is asked to resign.

January 05, 2007|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

The nation's nuclear weapons chief was fired Thursday, after a long series of security breaches at Los Alamos National Laboratory and other weapons sites had prompted strong criticism of his performance.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman issued an unusual public statement Thursday saying he had asked for the resignation of Linton F. Brooks, chief of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which operates eight major bomb facilities across the nation.

Late last year, law enforcement agents began investigating classified weapons data that were found along with drug paraphernalia during a police search at a trailer park in Los Alamos, N.M.

That incident was the latest in more than half a dozen breakdowns, including the loss of computer drives, the mishandling of Social Security numbers and financial fraud at the agency.

As the problems mounted, criticism of Brooks sharpened. Last year, Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas), then chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Brooks should be fired. Others in Congress also began to question the agency's performance, particularly multibillion-dollar cost overruns and technical setbacks on new weapons research facilities.

In dismissing Brooks, Bodman acknowledged that too many problems had been mishandled.

"I do not believe progress in correcting these issues has been adequate," Bodman said in the statement. "I have decided that it is time for new leadership." He said Brooks would depart this month and an acting administrator would replace him.

The tough handling of Brooks appeared intended to make a strong statement, particularly coming on the first day of Democratic control of House and Senate committees that have oversight of the nuclear weapons complex. In a statement distributed by the Energy Department, Brooks acknowledged that he had failed to head off the problems.

"One reason for forming NNSA was to prevent such management problems from occurring," he said. "We have not done so in over five years. For much of that time, I was in charge of NNSA."

The dismissal was "not a decision I would have preferred," Brooks said, but he praised Bodman's motives. Brooks, 68, has had a distinguished federal career: former Navy nuclear submarine commander, director of nuclear warfare for the Navy, and chief arms reduction negotiator during the Reagan administration. He led the team that achieved the first major treaty with the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear arms.

Barton, among other critics, said Brooks' departure was "long overdue." Barton was particularly incensed over Brooks' failure during a nine-month period to notify superiors that the personnel records and Social Security numbers of 1,500 Energy Department contract employees had been stolen by a computer hacker.

In 2004, most of the Los Alamos lab was shut down for nearly six months at a cost of $370 million when officials thought classified computer drives were missing. Investigators later concluded that the drives never existed. A few years earlier, a major investigation was conducted when two classified drives were discovered hidden behind an office copying machine.

Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, a watchdog group in Livermore, Calif., said Brooks was allowing storage of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium in facilities at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that could not be adequately protected.

"The security deficiencies at Livermore and Los Alamos are systemic and deserve a higher level of attention than NNSA has given them," she said.

Because the No. 2 person at NNSA, Principal Deputy Administrator Jerry Paul, recently left, there is something of a leadership vacuum. Agency officials could not say Thursday who would be running the operation after Brooks' departure.

ralph.vartabedian@

latimes.com

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