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Congressmen flaunt Los Alamos Lab bashing comedy routines

Why did the classified paper cross the road?

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New Congress - same old spanking of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

Members of the House of Representatives grabbed LANL as a whole, its leaders and government overlords by the throats and didn't let go during a Tuesday hearing. Both Democrats and Republicans agreed that LANL - the birthplace of the atomic bomb and one of the US's top research labs - has suffered far too many security lapses over the years, including the most recent incident where thousands of pages of classified material turned up in a contractor's trailer home. Despite a management change this year, the lab remains such a concern that some members of Congress questioned whether or not it should be shutdown.

Bart Stupak (D-MI), chairman of the Oversight and Investigation subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, started the Los Alamos beating by asking,

"What is so special about Los Alamos? Why do we need Los Alamos? What can't be transferred someplace else?"

Then, to make his point very clear, Stupak added, "I am convinced that we may need just to tow the car."

Over the years, LANL has emerged as one of Congress' favorite whipping boys. Members of the House berate officials for security lapses ranging from the infamous Wen Ho Lee incident to missing disks or files that sometimes turn up and sometimes turn out not to have been missing at all.

LANL's poor reputation prompted the government to put its management contract - owned by the University of California for more than 60 years - up for bid. And, last June, new managers stepped in when a private consortium, Los Alamos National Security, composed of UC, Bechtel and a couple of government contractors took control of LANL.

The management shift angered a number of employees who feared that the for-profit enterprise would fire workers, place less emphasis on science and secure unfairly high bonus fees from the government.

But proving that new LANL looks a lot like old LANL, confidential documents turned up in a contractor's trailer home in October, during a drug raid by the local police.

I never said never

The new contractor LANS is very sensitive about its reputation. Spokesman Jeff Berger, for example, has chastised your reporter in the past for bringing up Congressmens' statements that the lab be shut down because of poor security. He claimed that your reporter was the first person that has "ever suggested a total shutdown is even a possibility - however unlikely".

Although, back in 2005, Representative Stupak was asking the same questions about the lab. "Why do we have to have this place any longer," he wondered.

And now even more representatives have weighed in on the matter.

"It seems you can always hold a hearing on security lapses at Los Alamos," said Joe Barton (R-TX), during this week's hearings. "Well, enough is enough. This is not some fast food restaurant on the corner somewhere. I don't have words to explain how frustrated I am.

"If there was a way to start over, I would say, 'Shut down Los Alamos. Fire everyone out there and a build a new laboratory somewhere else.'"

Barton continued with a few choice words for LANS.

"I also think the current contractor at Los Alamos apparently doesn't give a damn about this (security lapse). I hate to use that kind of language, but that is how I feel."

Barton called for LANS to give up parts of its lucrative performance fees and to face civil penalties for the security issues.

"I do reserve the right to request that we consider shutting down this laboratory."

It should be noted that UC beat out the University of Texas for the LANL contract, and our man Barton comes from the great state of Texas. Although, it took another Texan to dish out the most reasoned perspective on Los Alamos.

"The country needs a well-functioning Los Alamos," said Mike Burgess (R-TX).

Burgess emphasized how bright and talented the researchers at Los Alamos are. The scientists perform some of the nation's most crucial jobs such as safe-guarding the nuclear weapon stockpile. They also engage in ground-breaking science across a variety of fields, including, physics, medicine, chemistry and high performance computing. From there, Burgess asked for LANS to be "penalized millions upon millions of dollars" so that "it will realize how serious the problem is."

Burgess was one of the few representatives able to keep his grand-standing to a minimum. The representatives love to lash out at Los Alamos without ever addressing the really important problems facing the lab.

They call for more security, more bureaucracy, more procedures, more manuals and more oversight. This was a tradition started by former director Pete Nanos who shutdown the lab for six months to "fix it". Somehow this culture of "more" is meant to lead an efficient, lean lab.

But many of LANL's former top minds have already departed due to the "more" culture, which creates a difficult environment for top scientists. A leading Linux server software specialist shouldn't need a four-hour course on how to plug in a computer.

Rather than attacking LANL for sport, the Congressmen should seek to add security oversight while maintaining Los Alamos as a productive lab. All parties' time during these hearings would be better spent trying to find such a balance - because it's the workers that matter in the end - than trying to come up with funny analogies that demonstrate just how much LANL's security sucks. ®

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