msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/22/2010 1:12:04 PM ET 2010-11-22T18:12:04

Government agents hired to drive nuclear weapons in trucks sometimes got drunk on the job, the U.S. Energy Department's watchdog said in a document released Monday.

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.

The memorandum said the incidents "indicate a potential vulnerability" in what it described as a "critical national security mission."

The findings were detailed in a memorandum dated Nov. 17, which said that when agents had drunk alcohol overnight after checking into local hotels, their trucks were in "safe harbor" status.

There are nearly 600 federal agents who ship nuclear weapons, weapon components and special nuclear material across the U.S.

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The document said the agents take part in a 21-week training course designed to help them prevent "the theft, sabotage or takeover of protected materials by unauthorized persons."

They were also meant to meet the "highest standards of reliability and physical and mental suitability," it added.

Drunk agent arrested
However, under a section headed "Alcohol-Related Incidents," the memorandum said "the number of alcohol-related incidents occurring over the last three years suggests that further action may be needed."

"Of the 16 incidents, two were of the greatest concern because they occurred during secure transportation missions while the Agents were in Rest Overnight Status, which occurs during extended missions where convoy vehicles are placed in a safe harbor and Agents check into local area hotels," the report said.

"In 2007, an Agent was arrested for public intoxication, and, in 2009, two Agents were handcuffed and temporarily detained by police officers after an incident at a local bar," it added.

"OST (Office of Secure Transportation) management took what appeared to be appropriate action in these cases. However, in our judgment, alcohol incidents such as these, as infrequent as they may be, indicate a potential vulnerability in OST’s critical national security mission," it said.

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The memorandum said "to assist with managing the ongoing challenges over the use of alcohol," the OST had developed a comprehensive policy on alcohol testing.

This included testing agents once a year for use of alcohol or when "there is reasonable suspicion of alcohol use." Drinking 10 hours before scheduled work is not allowed under the policy.

Ban on beer kegs
Those found to have alcohol above a certain level "must be sent home," it says.

The memorandum said the OST had addressed concerns about alcohol use by agent candidates at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas with "numerous briefings."

They are not allowed to drink for eight hours before reporting for duty and are forbidden from "possessing kegs of beer or quantities of alcohol in excess of what is reasonable for personal use."

They also have an "informal" designated driver program and are told of a "zero tolerance" approach.

"Candidates are told that there can be no arrests or detentions related to alcohol during the training program. If an incident occurs, the individual is removed from the training program," the memorandum said.

The memorandum, which was addressed to the Assistant Deputy Administrator for Secure Transportation, said the official should determine if "more aggressive actions" — similar to the zero tolerance approach for agent candidates — should be taken "to address concerns expressed by OST management."

In a statement emailed to msnbc.com, Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said its OST staff were "a highly trained, highly professional force."

LaVera said they had "safely and securely transported nuclear materials more than 100 million miles without a single fatal accident or any release of radiation."

"The Inspector General review did not find any evidence of a systemic problem, nor was there any evidence that any of our agents were driving while intoxicated while on duty," he addded. "Of hundreds of agents, the report identifies just two cases involving NNSA personnel being intoxicated while on overnight stops during official missions."

"As the report notes, appropriate disciplinary action was taken in both of these cases, and NNSA has established even tougher rules on alcohol use and a new alcohol testing requirement," LaVera said.

He added the NNSA was evaluating the report and and working to make additional improvements.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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