WASHINGTON — Federal agents hired to transport nuclear weapons and components sometimes got drunk while on convoy missions, a government watchdog said Monday. In an incident last year, police detained two agents who went to a bar during an assignment.
The Energy Department's assistant inspector general, Sandra D. Bruce, said her office reviewed 16 alcohol-related incidents involving agents, candidate-agents and others from the government's Office of Secure Transportation between 2007 through 2009. Nearly 600 federal agents ship nuclear weapons, weapon components and special nuclear material across the U.S.
Two incidents in particular raised red flags, the report said, because they happened during secure transportation missions while agents checked into local hotels while on extended missions. In these cases, the vehicles were placed in "safe harbor," meaning they were moved to secure locations.
In one case, in 2007, an agent was arrested for public intoxication. The other occurred last year, when police handcuffed and temporarily detained two agents after an incident at a bar.
"Alcohol incidents such as these, as infrequent as they may be, indicate a potential vulnerability in OST's critical national security mission," the report warns.
The report did not identify the locations for either incident, and the inspector general's office declined to identify them Monday, citing the safe harbor locations.
The findings alarmed some lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
"I was appalled to learn that some couriers responsible for transporting nuclear weapons and material were found to be drinking on the job," said Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who chairs the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. He said he would seek a full briefing from the inspector general.
"We cannot tolerate any behavior that falls short of the level of excellence required and expected when it comes to protecting and handling our nation's most powerful and dangerous weapons," Langevin said.
Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is seeking more information on the report and will be monitoring implementation of the recommendations, a committee spokeswoman said.
"As the report suggests, a potential vulnerability in the secure transportation of nuclear materials is entirely unacceptable," said Towns.
The Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the agents, stressed that the report found no evidence of them driving drunk while on duty, or of a systemic problem.
"NNSA's Office of Secure Transportation maintains a highly trained, highly professional force that has safely and securely transported nuclear materials more than 100 million miles without a single fatal accident or any release of radiation," said NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera.
"Of hundreds of agents," he added, "the report identifies just two cases involving NNSA personnel being intoxicated while on overnight stops during official missions."
LaVera said that the agency takes the cases seriously, and is working to evaluate the report and make additional improvements. He declined to say whether anyone was fired as a result of the incidents detailed in the report, saying he couldn't comment on personnel matters.
The report says that current guidelines call for alcohol testing at least once a year and when there is reasonable suspicion of alcohol use; a ban on consuming alcohol within 10 hours before scheduled work; and sending home agents who have an alcohol concentration of 0.02 or more.
"When alcohol-related incidents have occurred, OST officials told us that they have taken immediate action to include removal of agents from mission status," the report states.
The report recommends that officials consider actions such as a "zero tolerance" policy for alcohol incidents.
Associated Press writer Ted Bridis contributed to this report.