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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

NNSA is to blame

The folks at DOE - or more accurately NNSA - do share the blame for the LANS fiasco. After all, they are the ones who awarded the contract. But others, including the media and politicians, are no less guilty. And, in a certain perverse way, none of the players were "stupid". All had their own logic, protecting and advancing themselves, while destroying the Lab. 

Remember, the contract change in 2006 came about after a sustained and brutal smear campaign against LANL. It was always obvious that the media hysteria was built on shaky and often simply false foundations. The Ford Mustang story was a fabrication and the two "missing" zip discs had never existed. This didn't matter to the media, which fed on the sensationalism of the moment. "Scathing exposés" sold many copies of newspapers. Thoughtful corrections and follow-ups not so much. Scathing exposés it was then. 

Feeding on this media frenzy were the politicians in Congress, who found it convenient to grandstand, pound on the table in fits of manufactured outrage and "demand action". This happens to be the oldest trick in the book to get more votes.

Of course, the next step after indignant outrage is to demonstrate some action and to transfer the blame onto someone else. Accordingly, Congress "acted" and the monster called NNSA was born. Staffed with lawyers and retired admirals, this organization had no technical competence to manage national laboratories. But what it did have in abundance was the bureaucratic savvy. The lawyers and retired admirals recognized that they had oversight over billions of taxpayer dollars going to the NW complex. They reckoned that they would just pay a modest fraction of this huge sum to a separate, nominally private, entity. In return, the entity would assume all blame for years to come. Bingo, problem solved. This is how LANS was born. 

LANS, of course, went on to pillage and rape the formerly great national laboratory. Their execs had no reason to care about science or engineering. The only goal was to minimize the blame while collecting millions of dollars year after year. The execs didn't feel particularly guilty about the arrangement, as they weren't selected for their conscience in the first place. (Think Beth Sellers or Anthony Stanford.) So long as most problems could be swept under the rug, blame could be controlled and money would continue flowing. And if the blame ever became too much (say, a radioactive drum very inconveniently and publicly exploded), these people could simply step aside, their millions collected, and continue their careers somewhere else in the bowels of government-industrial machine. The curious case of Admiral Nanos had shown them that the process had no accountability.

The bottom line is that it's just too simplistic to say that DOE/NNSA was simply "stupid". In a way, what they did was clever: using taxpayer money to reassign the blame. Precisely the sort of thing you expect a collection of lawyers and admirals to do. Congress did it to them, they did it to LANS.

The net result of course is a severe, long-term damage to the NW complex and to national security. But, somehow, I doubt any of the players are suffering from a guilty conscience. Remember, they weren't selected for their roles for their conscience.

Why recount all this old stuff now? Those who don't learn the right lessons are bound to repeat the same mistakes.


Anonymous said...

Who cares?

Anonymous said...

Yep, people who cared left the Lab a long time ago. Those that still remain don't have an opinion on this. Or anything else for that matter. Natural selection at work. Traits selected for: docility, obedience and lack of critical thought.

Anonymous said...

The greatness at the lab is not gone but I will say this thought that who the contractor is makes a difference to the outcome is way overdone. The NNSA is inept, ignorant, and so deep into the management of the lab that they have any bodily fluid you want to use to describe this mess all over them. Oh and by the way, great respect for the scientists, but the operations side is absolutely incompetent top to bottom.

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