It was late-night Friday, July 27, 2012, and Steve Gibbs was too excited to go to sleep. He turned on the TV to watch the opening ceremonies for the summer Olympic Games in London.
Earlier in the evening, Oak Ridge security guards had ratified a new six-year contract, and Gibbs was a hero. As deputy general manager of security contractor Wackenhut Services, he had gone head to head with negotiators at the International Guards Union of America and come away with an agreement. Not only did it prevent an immediate strike at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, the six-year term meant the contract would expire at a different time than other key government plants — thus eliminating the potential for a multi-site security crisis in the future.
Gibbs was euphoric, receiving congratulatory calls or messages from Washington, D.C. to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. (Wackenhut’s corporate headquarters). He finally went to bed around midnight but still couldn’t sleep. By the time he did, he was awakened by a 5 a.m. telephone call that killed his euphoria and changed his life. Three individuals, including an 82-year-old nun, had defied Y-12’s vaunted security, cut through fences and reached an off-limits area where they protested the plant’s weapons work with spray paint and human blood.
“Driving to Y-12, I realized our company had gone ‘from the White House to the outhouse’ in less than eight hours,” Gibbs said in his self-published book that provides the first insider account of what took place following the unprecedented break-in.
Gibbs said the book, entitled, “Behind the Blue Line: Protecting Our Nuclear Weapons Complex,” was originally intended as a memoir to document his career for his kids and grandchildren. He began work, with the help of his wife, in 2010, and it includes anecdotes and observations from throughout his career.
After the security incident, however, the project took on a little extra purpose. He said the book was reviewed by classification officers at the National Nuclear Security Administration for more than nine months before it was cleared for release. Some things were taken out, he said, but not that much.
The book contains no shocking revelations about the break-in itself or newfound facts of the government’s many investigations, which found that Y-12 had grown lax with security measures and hadn’t repaired out-of-commission hardware — cameras and sensors — that should have made it easy to detect the intruders and take action to prevent their criminal mission.
The book does, however, shine more light on the pass-the-blame atmosphere that followed the security breach, which attracted international attention and the scrutiny of Congress and the White House.
When he arrived at the plant that morning before dawn, “it was obvious a serious incident had occurred,” Gibbs wrote. “Armored vehicles equipped with Dillon Aero miniguns were positioned near the entrance to the site. Additional security police officers equipped with M4 rifles and wearing body armor were providing security at the entrance portal.”
Everyone he encountered was wearing a look of disbelief.
Within hours of the incident, B&W Y-12, the managing contractor at Y-12, and Wackenhut or WSI, the security contractor in charge of the protective force at the plant, were back-stabbing each other.
“Emotions were running high,” Gibbs said.
In a meeting at the plant’s Tactical Operations Center, top brass gathered to discuss what happened.
WSI discussed operator concerns about the newly installed Argus computerized alarm system, pointing a finger a B&W for not responding to the complaints and vulnerabilities. B&W, on the other hand, said Wackenhut’s guards had not responded quickly or as directed.
“The one comment that brought the discussions to a quick halt,” Gibbs wrote, “was made by a B&W official, pointed directly at WSI. ‘You guys need to step up and take responsibility for what happened.’ Everything went downhill from that point.”
Both B&W and WSI ultimately lost their Oak Ridge contracts, with many millions of dollars at stake.
Hordes of federal investigators and security specialists arrived at Y-12. Some where brought in for temporary assignments, others to document what went wrong.
“I assume the hotels in Oak Ridge were packed because so many people were at Y-12 to help us,” he said.
According to Gibbs, at least 20 people lost their jobs, were reassigned or were forced to retire as a result of the incident and its aftermath. He recalls distinguished personnel with long service to the country, such as Wackenhut executive John Burleson, being escorted from the plant. Other colleagues were forced to pack up their belongings and leave, with no retirement party or a pat on the back.
Gibbs claims nobody came out of the mess a winner — with the possible exception of the news media. “It certainly gave them something to write about report and discuss,” he said in the book.
In an interview earlier this week at the News Sentinel, Gibbs said he retired on Oct. 29, 2012, a few months after the security breach and a couple of years earlier than he planned. He said nobody asked him to retire. He said his wife was concerned about the stress of working at Y-12 in those conditions and the impacts on his health — having survived a “close call” with Guillain-Barre Syndrome a couple of years before.
Now 66 years old, Gibbs is playing golf a couple of times a week and taking time to travel with his wife. He said he’s happy.
His thoughts, however, are still with security guards at Y-12.
Gibbs said one thing he hopes will come as a result of his book is that people will realize Y-12 really does have high-level protection — despite the highly documented failure of 2012.
Security guards were more embarrassed than angry, reeling at the jokes about “rent-a-cops” and other slurs about being taken down by elderly protesters, he said.
Asked how long it will take Y-12 to get its reputation back, he replied, “Maybe never.”
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