‘It doesn’t make sense’: Questions remain following report that Trump team fired leaders of US nuclear weapons safety and security

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Getty Images; US Navy; illustration by Business Insider

Update (1/10/2017, 9:30 a.m. ET): Comment from the Trump transition team added.

Correction (1/10/2017, 10:30 a.m. ET): Gizmodo corrected to its story, which an earlier version of this report cited. The outlet clarified that the Trump transition team did not fire NNSA leadership, yet has not asked the leaders to stay on or named their replacements.

As Inauguration Day draws near, thousands of US government workers tapped by the Obama administration are either tendering their resignations or waiting for a pink slip from President-elect Donald Trump.

It isn’t unusual for a new president to clean house across US agencies, but neither is keeping a few crucial appointed roles filled – at least until worthy successors are named. This is especially true of the leadership of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which safeguards America’s stockpile of roughly 7,000 nuclear weapons.

But according to a Monday Gizmodo story by Ashley Feinberg, NNSA leaders Frank Klotz and Madelyn Creedon have tendered their resignations and “the Trump transition team has not asked the top two NNSA officials to stay on until they can be replaced.”

The apparent and coming vacuum in NNSA leadership is the word from an unnamed “official within the Department of Energy.”

“According to [Gizmodo’s] Energy Department source, Trump’s team has yet to nominate anyone to succeed them. Since both positions require Senate confirmation, if could be months before their chairs are filled. And the vacancies may extend beyond the leadership roles,” the report said.

After Gizmodo initially reported Klotz and Creedon were fired, an anonymous NNSA official cited by Defense News denied the claim. “There have been no discussions between the president-elect’s transition team and any of NNSA’s political appointees on extending their public service past Jan. 20,” the official said.

A representative from the Trump transition team also disputed Gizmodo’s story, though it’s unclear what was being disputed. “There is no validity to this,” the representative wrote in an email to Business Insider while declining to answer multiple questions about details in the piece.

The Trump transition team did not immediately respond to our requests for clarification, including whether or not the team has picked replacements or if it has studied the impact of leaving top NNSA seats vacant for an extended period of time.

Gizmodo later corrected its report, writing “the Trump team has not explicitly instructed [Klotz and Creedon] to leave or ‘clean out their desks,’ as we reported.”

If Klotz and Creedon aren’t asked to stay on and Trump’s team names no replacements, it “doesn’t make any sense” and “could be very bad for the country,” Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund (a global security foundation) and a nuclear policy expert, told Business Insider.

“You really don’t want to strip away the senior management of your nuclear weapons without naming a replacement,” Cirincione said. “The nukes are basically home alone if you do that.”

Paying the guards of the guards

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A Minuteman-III missile in its silo in 1989.
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Public Domain

Cirincione has spent close to a decade on Capitol Hill within the House committees on Armed Services and Government Operations – two groups which help oversee NNSA contract work.

He says that NNSA bosses like Klotz and Creedon must sign off for nuclear weapons contractors to receive payment.

If there is no one in their seats, the money can stop flowing.

“It’s not as bad as not paying the guards of our nuclear weapons, but it’s as bad as not paying the people who pay for the guards of our nuclear weapons,” he said.

So, for an organization that may get roughly $12.9 billion this year alone to maintain “the safety, security, and effectiveness” of existing nuclear weapons, as well as oversee new projects (such as the development of tactical gravity bombs), even a few leaderless days could translate into hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of missed payments and possibly compromise essential services.

“If this goes on, you’ll start seeing contracts ending and a lack of contractual oversight. You will see an impact on our vast nuclear complex,” he said. “Every day, [tens] of millions of dollars are moving through the pipeline, and it’s under the control of the two people [Trump] just dismissed.”

Cirincione – whose organization wants to eliminate nuclear weapons, and says he has “blasted” Klotz and Creedon for excessive contract costs and delays – says asking NNSA’s leadership to stay on makes sense, especially given Trump’s suggestions about nuclear proliferation.

“Both Klotz and Creedon are pro-nuclear-weapons. They’re the ones in charge of the health of our nuclear weapons,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. Yes, they were appointed by the Obama administration, but they’re non-ideological. It’s not like they’ve been blocking things.”