Lawmakers grill Energy officials about missing data

Lawmakers grill Energy officials about missing data

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

JUNE 13'The disappearance of two computer hard drives containing nuclear secrets and other sensitive data from the Los Alamos National Laboratory was probably not the result of espionage, the Energy Department's security czar told a congressional panel today.

Testifying before the House Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Air Force Gen. Eugene E. Habiger said he concluded after an investigation that human error rather than espionage led to the hard drives' disappearance from the New Mexico lab. The FBI and Energy Department are conducting a joint criminal investigation into the matter.

Energy officials on Monday publicly acknowledged that the hard drives have been missing since at least May 7, when lab personnel moved to secure them and the lab from forest fires that threatened the area [see story at www.gcn.com/vol19_no12/news/2057-1.html].

The 28 individuals given unescorted access privileges as well as the 57 lab workers holding escorted access privileges will be subjected to polygraph-monitored interviews beginning tomorrow, Habiger said.

The hard drives are part of an emergency kit used by the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, or NEST, in responding to nuclear accidents or nuclear-related threats from terrorists. The set is one of three identical setups kept in a vault of the super-secret X Division, where nuclear weapons are designed, officials said.

When a lab worker grabbed the kit to move it to a vault he deemed safer from the fire, he realized that the locked bag holding the drives was empty, Habiger told the subcommittee. The worker took hard drives from another kit to replace the missing drives and secured it in a fireproof vault, he said.

The blaze forced officials to abandon the lab the next day. No one reported the hard drives missing for nearly three weeks, officials said.

Lab workers returned May 22 and began searching for the hard drives two days later, Habiger testified.

Personnel notified John Browne, director of the Los Alamos lab, of the disappearance on May 31, Habiger said.

House members wanted to know why it took so long to report the disappearance. Energy Department regulations call for Habiger's office to be notified within eight hours when a potential security breech has occurred.

Habiger acknowledged that lab officials may have attempted to find the missing drives before facing up to the embarrassment of losing the highly classified information.

Officials aren't certain when all three kits were last accounted for, Habiger said. On April 7, a lab worker checked the missing kit, and the hard drives were there, but the worker didn't check the other two kits. Another worker who was in the 10- by 20-foot vault between April 7 and the evacuation didn't recall seeing the hard drives but told investigators that he would have noticed if the equipment had not been in its proper place, the general testified.

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