Probe Faults DOE Over Y-12 Security Exam Fraud

A no-trespassing sign at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee. A new inspector general report says a standard practice by the U.S. Energy Department helped Y-12 guards to gain advance access to questions and answers for a test (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig).
A no-trespassing sign at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee. A new inspector general report says a standard practice by the U.S. Energy Department helped Y-12 guards to gain advance access to questions and answers for a test (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig).

WASHINGTON -- Security personnel at the Y-12 National Security Complex gained unintended access to questions and answers for an examination on protective procedures at the Tennessee nuclear weapons facility, a development enabled in part by a standard government practice of submitting such tests for advance review by hired firms, Energy Department Inspector General Gregory Friedman said in a report made public on Wednesday.

Auditors with the department's Health, Safety and Security Office on Aug. 29 seized unauthorized duplicate testing materials from a Y-12 guard vehicle during an investigation launched in the wake of a July break-in at the site by peace activists. The finding prompted officials to postpone the examination previously set to be administered the next day.

Friedman's office verified that WSI-Oak Ridge -- the firm then overseeing Y-12 defensive operations -- had made the test information available to "numerous" security personnel at the site, the official stated in a report dated Oct. 26. Recipients included "the very people whose knowledge was to have been evaluated," he stressed.

"The failure to properly safeguard the test prior to its administration, especially given the intense focus on Y-12 and the security concerns at the site, was, in our opinion, inexplicable and inexcusable," the IG assessment asserts. It faults WSI-Oak Ridge for handling the examination like "a training aid," and notes DOE personnel had transmitted the quiz in an encoded e-mail to "trusted" representatives of the private security provider.

WSI-Oak Ridge has been dismissed from its role as security provider for the site overseen by the Energy Department's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration.

The report also faults the Energy Department, which gave no "specific instructions" in the e-mail "for protecting the test against compromise." The department provided the materials in advance of administering the quiz to ensure they conformed to Y-12 operations.

Department regulations should require examination materials to be "marked and protected in a manner to avoid any ambiguity as to whether they are to be shared," the document states.

A relevant DOE directive fails to specifically prohibit "trusted agents" from distributing examination information, the inspector general found. One member of WSI-Oak Ridge said the absence of such language played a role in the examination's "compromise," according to the report.

The department revised the directive in response to the Y-12 testing incident, but a new version "still did not specifically address the applicability to job knowledge testing," IG auditors determined. The DOE Health, Safety and Security Office said it would move to clarify how the "trusted agent" designation applies to such examinations.

WSI-Oak Ridge personnel insisted "there was no intent to cheat on the [Energy Department] inspection," but the investigators voiced skepticism over the security organization's purportedly innocent intentions. In an Aug. 23 e-mail message, one employee of the contractor advised colleagues to "remember the sensitivity issue with these [examination] questions."

"It would not be a good idea for these to be left lying around or for a SPO (Security Police Officer) to have these in hand during an audit," the insider added.

Potential for similar security examination breaches could extend to other Energy Department sites, auditors indicated. Contractors at a number of the facilities regularly receive examination materials in advance from on-site DOE officials, a high-level Health, Safety and Security Office insider told auditors. A high-ranking staffer for the Y-12 site's contract operator, Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Y-12, implied he had provided advance examination details to personnel not approved specifically to receive them at another sensitive DOE facility, the investigators added.

"In our view, federal officials should have an active role in reviewing, commenting and controlling testing material," Friedman wrote, alluding to a possible conflict of interest in providing hired organizations with early access to testing materials intended to test the proficiency of their own staff.

"The use of contractors is not an optimal situation and, if necessary because of gaps in coverage by federal officials, should be minimized and tightly controlled," the IG document asserts.

National Nuclear Security Administration head Thomas D'Agostino, though, disputed the link between the testing incident and his agency's oversight of companies operating on its behalf. The evaluation shortcomings stemmed from “the abuse of discretion (or disregard of controls for further distribution) on the contractor’s part in releasing the materials to a broader group of employees,” not from the basic practice of providing hired firms with advance access to such details, the official said in a statement to auditors.

November 1, 2012
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WASHINGTON -- Security personnel at the Y-12 National Security Complex gained unintended access to questions and answers for an examination on protective procedures at the Tennessee nuclear weapons facility, a development enabled in part by a standard government practice of submitting such tests for advance review by hired firms, Energy Department Inspector General Gregory Friedman said in a report made public on Wednesday.

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