Mushroom cloud over Denver?

A top Department of Energy official is caught on tape worrying that security is lax at Rocky Flats weapons facility.


Mark Hertsgaard
April 12, 1999 11:00PM (UTC)

What if Timothy McVeigh had attacked Oklahoma City with nuclear rather than conventional explosives? What if the World Trade Center bombers had packed their truck with plutonium rather than the chemical cocktail they used?

Now, transplant those nightmare scenarios to Denver, and put yourself in the mind of Ed McCallum. The year is 1997. McCallum is the Department of Energy's top professional with hands-on responsibility for protecting the nation's vast stores of nuclear weapons-grade materials from theft or sabotage. McCallum has been reviewing the security performance at Rocky Flats, the nuclear site 17 miles northwest of Denver, and he sees the catastrophe of the century waiting to happen, on his watch.

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"The workers at that plant, and the citizens of Colorado, are at extremely high risk" of a terrorist assault that could unleash "a little mushroom-shaped cloud" over Denver, McCallum confided in a phone call to a colleague that May. Such a blast would not only kill Denver's million-plus inhabitants, it would claim tens of millions of additional lives as its radioactive plume blew across the Midwest and on to the East Coast.

Not long after that phone call, Mark Graf, a security expert at Rocky Flats, agreed at McCallum's urging to blow the whistle on security lapses at the site. Now, in an ongoing legal wrangle about his whistle-blowing with his employer, Wackenhut Services, the company in charge of security at Rocky Flats, Graf and his attorneys have released a tape recording of the phone call in which Ed McCallum voiced his fears about security at Rocky Flats. It provides a disturbing window on the DOE's own worries about Rocky Flats.

The phone call was between McCallum and Jeff Peters, the former director of Protective Force Operations at Rocky Flats. As the man formerly in charge of the entire uniformed protective force on site, Peters had extensive firsthand knowledge of security deficiencies at Rocky Flats; indeed, he had butted heads about them for years with his bosses at Wackenhut before finally blowing the whistle to federal authorities himself and resigning under duress in 1996.

McCallum telephoned Peters because he wanted Peters' help bringing the problems at Rocky Flats into the open before tragedy struck. McCallum, as the director of DOE's Office of Safeguards and Security, had recently rated security at Rocky Flats as "unsatisfactory" in his confidential 1996 annual report to the president. (The DOE's security rating system has but three categories: satisfactory, marginal and unsatisfactory.)

In their phone call, which Peters taped, McCallum said he wanted Peters and Graf to start talking to the news media about the problems at the site. McCallum had been trying to warn superiors in the Clinton administration about the impending danger at Rocky Flats but with little success. If the media got interested in the story, though, the politicians and bureaucrats in Washington would have to do something.

Peters shared McCallum's concerns, and the two men went on to discuss some specific problems at Rocky Flats. Recently conducted internal tests had shown that the facility was highly susceptible to terrorist attack. In the tests, the "bad guys" had succeeded 100 percent of the time in entering the complex and gaining access to the approximately 20 tons of nuclear weapons-grade materials stored inside. (It takes only a softball-sized chunk of plutonium to create an explosion equivalent to three or four Hiroshima blasts.)

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Once inside of Rocky Flats, McCallum observed, terrorists would only need to slap some high explosives on the nuclear materials, light a fuse and voil`: "a little mushroom-shaped cloud" would soon be rising over Denver and heading across the United States. Of course, the terrorists could also steal the nuclear materials and detonate them elsewhere. The bad guys had succeeded 80 percent of the time with that scenario in the recent tests.

McCallum said he could not understand why people living near Rocky Flats had not "gone absolutely wacko" about the danger. Peters replied, "It's only because they don't know ... they're being fed a line of shit the whole time."

Indeed, the American people almost never hear such brutal candor from their public servants; government officials only talk this honestly among themselves (and rarely even then). McCallum plainly never intended his comments to reach the public's ears. In a brief conversation with Salon News, McCallum said, "I've been officially told by my agency [DOE] that I'm not allowed to comment." He did say, however, that he had not known that Peters was recording their May 1997 phone call, and that he considers the release of the tapes, and indeed the taping itself, illegal, though he does not disagree with the larger point Peters and Graf are making with the tapes. (Peters vigorously disputed that McCallum did not know about the taping, the legality of which was affirmed in advance, according to Peters, by both the FBI and the DOE's Office of General Counsel.)

In any case, the tapes became the smoking gun of a legal hearing just concluded in Denver that may determine whether the American public ever learns the full truth about Rocky Flats. The hearing, which has gone uncovered by the mainstream media, pits Mark Graf against his employer, Wackenhut Services.

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In March 1998, Graf, by then a 16-year veteran of security work at Rocky Flats, sued Wackenhut for allegedly retaliating against him for speaking out about security flaws at the plant. Among other actions, Wackenhut suspended Graf from his position and ordered him to undergo psychological evaluation. Graf won his lawsuit when the Department of Labor ruled that Wackenhut's retaliation was illegal; the department ordered the company to reinstate Graf, purge all references to the incident from his record and pay him $10,000 in damages, plus attorney's fees.

At last week's hearing, Wackenhut sought to overturn that ruling by arguing that Graf did not come to Wackenhut's classification office for clearance before talking with the media. "Wackenhut feels the clear issue here is that there is a DOE rule requiring that people who work at DOE sites must first go through the classification office before talking to the news media in order to prevent the inadvertent disclosure of classified info," Dennis Brown, Wackenhut's attorney, told Salon News. "Wackenhut's position is that if you want to work at a DOE site, you've got to follow their rules, and furthermore, that Graf wasn't discriminated against, he was simply disciplined for refusing to follow this rule."

Graf was represented at the Denver hearing by the Government Accountability Project, a public interest law firm that specializes in defending corporate and government whistle-blowers. GAP attorney Tom Carpenter argued that Graf is a trained de-classifier whom Wackenhut had repeatedly relied upon for classification advice in numerous other instances, and that Graf therefore knew full well that the material he was sharing with the media did not violate classification restrictions. To require Graf to clear any outside statements with Wackenhut in advance, Carpenter contended, would effectively grant the company veto power over any whistle-blowing by any of its employees.

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To punish Graf for speaking to the news media would be all the more unfair, argued Peters, when Graf was specifically urged to do so by DOE's McCallum. "I've sat on these tapes for years and tried to address these security issues through the system, so we didn't panic the public," Peters told Salon News. But without the release of the tapes, Wackenhut and DOE could get away with denying that Graf's concerns about Rocky Flats security had any validity.

"There have been various questions raised about the security posture at Rocky Flats," acknowledges Patrick Etchart, a spokesman for the Department of Energy at Rocky Flats. "There have been several reviews of this issue, and these reviews have consistently concluded that the plutonium and other special nuclear materials at Rocky Flats are not at risk." Asked whether the DOE disputed McCallum's 1997 statements about an "extremely high risk" of a "mushroom-shaped cloud" appearing over Denver, Etchart said, "I can only refer to the independent reviews I already mentioned ... We spend in excess of $60 million a year to make sure this material is safe, and none of the reviews have ever indicated the material was at immediate risk."

In particular, Etchart cites a review of Rocky Flats security initiated by former Denver-area Rep. David Skaggs in October 1998. The review, says Etchart, was conducted by four independent experts who were completely outside of DOE's control and it found that the site was "not at risk."

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"The experts who visited Rocky Flats last year didn't give them a rosy report," counters GAP's Tom Carpenter. "It was a mixed review that found there were significant problems in some aspects of the facility and in other aspects not. But did those independent experts talk to key people like Mark Graf, Jeff Peters, David Ridenour and other whistle-blowers who had important information about security deficiencies at Rocky Flats? No."

Graf and Peters aren't the only whistle-blowers who've alleged security deficiencies exist at Rocky Flats. When David Ridenour came to Rocky Flats in February 1997 to serve as DOE's on-site director of security, he boasted 20 years of experience as an Air Force weapons officer and engineer. But after a mere three months, Ridenour resigned "in disgust," as he wrote in a letter to Secretary of Energy Federico Peqa. Ridenour complained that Wackenhut Services was operating security with little or no government oversight, and he charged he had been told not to let security concerns interfere with the contractor's profits.

"Never before ... in my career have I ever been placed in a position where loyalty to my supervision and my requirement to protect the public health and safety were placed in direct opposition," wrote Ridenour, who added, "I feel that conflict today."

Ridenour's letter was Exhibit A in the evidence that Ed McCallum wanted Peters and Graf to leak to the news media in May 1997. By then, Graf and Peters had been working internally for years, trying to persuade Wackenhut to upgrade security at Rocky Flats. In 1996, Graf and Peters drafted an eight-page classified memo outlining numerous specific vulnerabilities at Rocky Flats that, if exploited, could result in catastrophic consequences. When Wackenhut management took no action about their memo, Graf and Peters notified the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. An internal review was undertaken by DOE, but McCallum warned Peters that the agency "was going to take a dodge on it."

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Meanwhile, security readiness at Rocky Flats continued to deteriorate, according to McCallum. In his 1996 annual report to the president, McCallum had warned that budget cuts had diminished security at Rocky Flats to "a hollow force," making the site the least secure of all 12 of the nuclear weapons sites overseen by DOE. In his May 1997 phone call to Peters, McCallum said he had told Washington, "'We've lost 42 percent of our protective forces and 50 percent of our SWAT capability ... at a time when we've increased our holdings [of nuclear weapons-grade materials] by 70 metric tons. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure this one out.'"

In response to McCallum's entreaties, Graf and Peters agreed to talk to reporters about Rocky Flats, with the understanding that they would not divulge classified information in the process. Stories duly began appearing in the Denver Post, USA Today, Wall Street Journal and other major papers and on "The CBS Evening News." The flurry of news coverage got Wackenhut's attention. According to Graf's lawyer, Tom Carpenter, Graf became "a victim of harassment and intimidation by Wackenhut. He has been subjected to psychological evaluation; placed on administrative leave for over eight months; and threatened that any additional disclosures would result in his termination."

Dennis Brown, Wackenhut's lawyer, concedes that Graf was sent for psychological evaluation and that the step may sound "Stalinistic" but says there were valid reasons. When Graf admitted he had not cleared his media appearances with the classification office despite knowing the DOE required him to do so, Brown explains, it made his boss "wonder whether he could trust Graf in the future ... [his boss was also] concerned about Graf's emotional state, because he felt Graf was demonstrating some disturbing behavior -- inability to sleep at night, anxiety and so forth -- and [the boss] wanted to make sure this guy was stable enough to hold the kind of security job he did."

Brown insists further that Graf is entirely wrong to suggest that Wackenhut did not take his security concerns seriously. "Graf's concerns have been reviewed no less than 10 or 20 times in the last couple years by various committees, and they have concluded Rocky Flats is not at risk," says Brown. "I don't doubt Graf's sincerity, or Ed McCallum's, but I believe these committees. Also, you've got to remember McCallum's remarks from the phone call of May 1997 are dated now. Since then, improvements have been made, to where the most recent report to the president lists Rocky Flats security as 'satisfactory.'"

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In response, GAP lawyer Carpenter asks how the public can trust DOE's assurances that all is now well at the plant in light of DOE's reluctance to admit previous problems there and its ongoing efforts to silence employees or contractors like Graf. The DOE has provided financial support to Wackenhut for its legal appeal against Graf, and it refused to allow key witnesses like McCallum to testify at last week's hearing.

Jeff Peters, meanwhile, points out that, "the same problems we were discussing in 1997 -- of terrorists being able to get in and have extended access to the nuclear material -- still pertain. And now you have the guard force cut in half, to less than 250 guards, they still haven't upgraded their alarm system -- in fact, they've canceled the project -- and they have torn down the outer gates and fences around the facility to make access easier and quicker."

The loss of those barriers, Peters says, means a truck could force its way into Rocky Flats, get to within 75 yards of a building containing tons of nuclear weapons-grade material and then be detonated, "just like that van of Timothy McVeigh's was detonated in Oklahoma City. That kind of explosion would wipe out the building and the nuclear material inside would vent into the atmosphere. And that would make Chernobyl look like a picnic."


Mark Hertsgaard

MORE FROM Mark Hertsgaard

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