from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
February 14, 2001


The risk of theft of nuclear materials at Department of Energy facilities is unacceptably high, according to a DOE security contractor.

"Clear evidence of actual risk to Special Nuclear Materials at key DOE sites and in transit" was identified in a classified DOE Inspector General report last year, wrote Ronald E. Timm, president of RETA Security, in a February 9 letter to DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham.

Yet despite these and similar findings by other investigators, "nothing was done," Mr. Timm complained. "Special Nuclear Materials were at risk then, Special Nuclear Materials are at risk today, and, without significant changes, Special Nuclear Materials will be at risk in the future."

The force of Mr. Timm's letter is diminished by a breathless tone and a tendency to extreme formulations. ("Terrorists have a ready supply of Special Nuclear Materials already existing and available within our borders.") His concern about the adequacy of nuclear material safeguards, however, is shared by others inside and outside of government.

But one official seasoned by long experience with the DOE bureaucracy said that this concern was not yet an effective political factor.

"This President and this Congress are not going to spend billions to fix the weapons complex unless there is a serious and very dramatic physical event," the official said. "Absent that, the contractors and DOE managers will muddle along losing more classified information, protecting information that doesn't need to be protected for national security reasons, and accepting some of the risks to SNM and facilities."

The text of Mr. Timm's letter, widely copied to congressional offices, is posted here:


Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee are quarreling over whether the Committee Chairman, Senator Richard Shelby, will continue to control hiring of the Committee's staff or whether the Democratic members, led by Vice Chairman Senator Bob Graham, will be entitled to hire their own staff. The dispute was reported today by the New York Times and last week by the Washington Post:

While the outcome of this conflict could become important in some circumstances, the fact is that when it comes to intelligence oversight the practical differences between the two parties are distressingly small.

One indication of the bipartisan convergence of opinion is a statement made by Senator Graham at an intelligence committee hearing on February 7 endorsing increased intelligence spending: "This committee plays a very special role [in determining the future of intelligence spending]. We have a special responsibility to represent the interest of the intelligence community before those who will make these budgetary decisions."

The surprising notion that the oversight committees should be advocates for intelligence and should "represent the interest of the intelligence community" was first articulated in 1996 by Republican Rep. Larry Combest, then-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He lamented the traditionally adversarial character of intelligence oversight.

Combest's once counterintuitive conception is now the dominant view, shared by leading Democrats like Sen. Graham.

It is a remarkable reversal. The intelligence committees were originally established to serve as proxies for the public, and to act on behalf of the public in overseeing intelligence. Today, however, the committees increasingly serve as proxies for the intelligence agencies, advancing their budgetary interests and their legislative initiatives. Oversight as it was once understood will have to come from somewhere else.


Official controls over national security information continue to shift in interesting ways in many corners of the world.

"Russian researchers have made the decision to declassify the principle of operation of the so-called explosive ignition thermonuclear facility developed by the research institute of technical physics in Snezhinsk," according to a February 11 report from Interfax News Agency. The action apparently refers to an explosive-driven nuclear fusion process for generating electrical power. See:

"Military secrecy is a fiction," said Venezuela's new defense minister, José Vicente Rangel this week. Secrecy is valid "only for the deployment of military forces. This is basic. But the old conception of secrecy, which is absolutely anachronistic, has in fact been overcome." As a result, declassification of documents is a done deal ("un asunto resuelto"), according to a February 13 report in the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. See "El secreto militar es una ficción":

Also this week, the government of Vietnam has provided details of its secrecy policy for the first time, according to Agence France Presse. The new Vietnamese secrecy system that takes effect on April 1 will include three classification levels, and will encompass such state secrets as the number of bank notes in circulation and the size of monetary reserves, as well as information on national security, foreign policy and internal Party disputes.


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