D'Agostino represents steady hand

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By Roger Snodgrass

Last year appearing before the House Armed Services Committee on behalf of the Bush Administration, national nuclear weapons chief Thomas D’Agostino discussed plans for consolidating the sprawling weapons complex he administers.

This year, carried over in his position by the Obama Administration, D’Agostino stressed proliferation and non-proliferation during his presentation to the committee, two sides of the same coin, which represents the arms reduction priorities of the new regime.

“My job is to take the President’s Prague speech (laying out his vision for nuclear-free world) and turn that into real programs that can get implemented out in the field,” D’Agostino said.

On Thursday, after serving in a continuing capacity for eight months as administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, D’Agostino was named to retain his current position by President Obama. He will not need to be reconfirmed by the Senate.

Senator Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., offered a key endorsement, if not exactly a resounding one, in an announcement Thursday.

 “It is very important to ensure that our labs play an expanding role in addressing our nation’s key challenges, in areas ranging from renewable energy to national security,” he said. “I believe Tom D’Agostino understands our laboratories’ capabilities very well, will support strengthening their science resources and ensuring they play a pivotal role for the nation.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., also congratulated D’Agostino in an announcement Friday.

“Administrator D’Agostino is committed to the long-term security of both Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories and I am pleased to continue working with him on setting the future paths for our labs.”

It has been no secret that efforts were made to find an alternative candidate who was not so closely associated with the former president.

In a commentary Thursday, Science magazine’s Jeffrey Mervis said “several prominent scientists and nuclear policy heavyweights rejected the Administration’s overtures,” and others failed to make the grade because of possible confirmation problems in the Senate.

That description jibes with a similar description in the latest issue of the insider newsletter, Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor.

Arms control advocates have questioned D’Agostino’s previous role as a champion for the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a program to remake nuclear weapons, supposedly in a cheaper, safer, more secure and effective way. Presumably, this philosophy continues to underpin his plans for transforming and consolidating the nuclear complex.

 “Many people left. Tom stayed in the national interest” said Los Alamos Site Office Deputy Manager Roger Snyder. “That gave the administration some continuity in the meantime.”

Snyder said that both he and LASO Manager Don Winchell had worked for D’Agostino.

“Everyone has confidence in his ability as a leader,” he said.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group offered a measured perspective from the anti-nuclear viewpoint in an e-mail Thursday.

“In my view Mr. D’Agostino has grown while in this job.  He is certainly a nuclear “true believer — nobody should have any illusions about that — but he is also a pragmatist, intelligent and decisive,” Mello said.  “The biggest problem at NNSA is not any particular leader, but the fact that decisions are made in a bubble; the operating rules of the bubble were written during the Cold War and rewritten largely along the same lines during Clinton and Bush years, and this bubble sits within the larger national security establishment of Washington, D.C.”

D’Agostino’s appointment came just after the Office of Management and Budget quietly withdrew its efforts to transfer NNSA’s function to the Defense Department, an idea that was panned by Bingaman and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who chairs the Senate appropriation subcommittee with responsibility for Department of Energy funding.

The announcement also precedes a series of high-level policy documents that will begin to roll out as Congress returns to business after Labor Day. Among them is the third Nuclear Posture Review, a combined assessment by the Departments of Defense, Energy and State on what the nation needs and plans to do over the next five to 10 years to coordinate nuclear policy, strategy and forces.

An unclassified, executive summary of a Global Nuclear Security report on the security of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons materials outside the United  States was due this week but will be delayed until sometime after Sept. 7.

D’Agostino’s appointment calls attention to a number of high-level appointments yet to be filled at NNSA including the deputy administrator role, along with top executives for defense programs and defense nuclear nonproliferation.