Los Alamos stumbles again on security

Los Alamos stumbles again on security

Rep. Bart Stupak says his library has a better tracking system than Los Alamos.

In wake of hard drive loss at lab, Senate confirms new Energy nuclear chief

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

Prompted by the recent disclosure that Los Alamos National Laboratory could not account for the disappearance of two hard drives containing top-secret nuclear data, the Senate last week voted 97-0 to confirm Air Force Gen. John A. Gordon as director of the new quasi-independent nuclear programs agency.

Energy has a history of computer and security weaknesses, dating back to its establishment during the height of the Cold War.

The deputy CIA director will take over management of all Energy nuclear systems as chief of the National Nuclear Security Agency [GCN, April 24, Page 1].

Meanwhile, FBI investigators will use polygraph tests as they quiz 83 Los Alamos workers who had access to the vault from which the removable hard drives disappeared.

The initial round of interviews conducted during a joint DOE-FBI investigation turned up nothing, Energy's security czar, Gen. Eugene E. Habiger last week told the House Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Energy has turned the investigation over to the FBI and has suspended six managers, with pay, pending the investigation's outcome.

Habiger steered lawmakers away from the theory that another nation's spies spirited away the data. The missing hard drives are the latest in a string of security embarrassments at Energy, which has been in defense mode since last year, when it accused one its scientists, Wen Ho Lee, of downloading classified nuclear data from Los Alamos systems.

Some colleagues have suggested that Lee, a U.S. citizen who was born in Taiwan, was under suspicion because of broader investigation of Chinese efforts to obtain U.S. nuclear secrets.

The hard drives disappeared after Lee, who is in jail awaiting trial on data mishandling charges, left the lab last year. The drives were at the facility in January when the lab did an inventory, Los Alamos Lab director John Browne testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The committee originally scheduled last week's hearing to discuss security oversight at Energy headquarters, but loss of the drives containing data about how to disarm nuclear weapons and systems gave the hearing a new focus.

'The Menominee, Mich., city library has a more sophisticated tracking system for Winnie the Pooh than the Energy Department for its hard drives at Los Alamos,' said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).

Habiger said human error rather than espionage likely led to the hard drives' disappearance from the New Mexico lab.

Energy officials on June 12 publicly acknowledged that the hard drives have been missing at least since May 7, when lab personnel went to gather and secure them as raging wildfires swept through New Mexico [GCN, May 22, Page 8].

The hard drives are part of an emergency kit used by the Nuclear Emergency Search Team to respond to nuclear accidents or terrorist threats. The set is one of three identical setups kept in the NEST vault in the lab's supersecret X Division, where nuclear weapons are designed.

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

The following day, wildfires forced the Los Alamos lab to evacuate all employees. But lab officials did not notify Energy headquarters that the hard drives were missing for nearly three weeks.

Workers returned to the lab May 22 and began searching for the hard drives two days later, Habiger testified. He called those with access to the missing equipment 'dedicated loyal Americans.' No foreign nationals had access to the missing hard drives, he said.

Lab personnel notified Los Alamos director Browne of the disappearance on May 31. Browne contacted Energy the following day.

No alarm sounded

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

Habiger said lab officials might have attempted to find the missing data before facing up to the embarrassment of losing the highly classified information.

Following the disappearance, Browne ordered the lab locked down for 72 hours to make sure nothing else was missing, Habiger said.

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