Ever since last summer, when a 82-year-old nun
broke into the Y-12 nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee,
the National Nuclear Security Administration has scrambled to improve
its leadership and beef up security at America's nuke facilities. Now it appears the agency has found the man for the job: The weekly trade publication Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor
reported last week that the NNSA has named as its acting head of
nuclear security Steve Asher, a retired Air Force colonel who less than
four years ago was working as a "team leader" at a Target store in
Spokane, Washington. Prior to that, he commanded a missile base in
Montana that flunked a nuclear security test within five months of his
This November 2009 video, dug up by the Project on Government Oversight (where I used to be a fellow), shows Asher hawking Black Friday bargains:
"A lot of folks were being thrifty in their shopping this year, and so
we sold more of our $1.99 towels than we expected!" (Click the
screenshot for the link.)
Asher's new title is acting chief of defense nuclear security and
associate administrator for defense nuclear security, which puts him in
charge of developing and implementing security programs at nuke sites nationwide. He has only worked at NNSA since late last year, when he was brought in as a security consultant, Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor
reported. According to NNSA spokesman Joshua McConaha, Asher will have
to apply for the permanent position, just like any other candidate.
"Asher was recruited into Target's executive ranks after serving 33
years in the US Air Force," he says. "There are very few people in the
United States who have more experience."
Citing privacy concerns, Target declined to answer questions
regarding Asher's term of employment, but it appears he came to Target
after leaving Malmstrom Air Force Base in July 2008. From 2005 until
2008, as the commander of Malmstrom's 341st Security Forces Group,
he was in charge of security for 200 intercontinental ballistic
missiles in central Montana, according to Katrina M. Heikkinen, a
spokeswoman for the base.
In November 2008, the Air Force Times
reported that the 341st Missile Wing had failed its "nuclear surety
inspection," which takes place every 18 months, after problems were
found with maintenance, and also with the program that monitors access to the nukes (it passed its reinspection
several months later.) "That's what really concerns us," says Peter
Stockton, a senior investigator at POGO. "Malmstrom failed, and Asher
can't really claim that he's not responsible for any of that stuff."
Heikkinen said she could not comment on whether the failed inspection
was related to Asher's command. The NNSA's McConaha, asked about the
problems at Malmstrom, says that "there is absolutely no doubt" that
Asher has sufficient experience for his new position. He "led nearly
1,300 airmen in providing a high state of security for the largest
nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile field in the free world."
Atomic City Underground, a blog by Knoxville News Sentinel
reporter Frank Munger, reports that Asher also has 10 years' experience
advising the Air Force inspector general on nuclear security. At the
NNSA, he is replacing acting chief Brig. General Sandra Finan, who took
over from Jeff Harrell, another acting chief. The last permanent chief
was Douglas Fremont, who was reassigned after an anti-war group embarrassed the agency by infiltrating the Y-12 complex.
All three had impressive security credentials: Finan worked as an inspector general at Air Force Global Strike Command and was director of "space forces" during the Iraq war. Harrell was previously director of the NNSA's Office of Secure Transportation. And Fremont has at least three decades of experience in national security, mostly in submarines and nuclear weapons.
Given recent reports of security problems at American nuclear sites—the Department of Energy's watchdog
found in December that NNSA was failing to adequately inform law
enforcement when its computers were hacked—POGO's experts aren't
convinced that Asher is suitably prepared. "We're concerned that, in
this vulnerable time for the NNSA, someone who has been so out of this
world for a while isn't up to the task of making all the major security
changes that really should be made," says Lydia Dennett, a POGO research
"Target," counters NNSA spokesman McConaha, "is a Fortune 50 company
who is extremely selective about who they recruit. He was responsible
for managing hundreds of people and millions of dollars."
The newscaster in the video seems to agree: Asher's Target store exceeded "expectations in revenue and total number of shoppers."
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