Disk drives found, but Los Alamos questions linger

Disk drives found, but Los Alamos questions linger

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

JUNE 17'Investigators have located two hard disk drives missing since May 7 from the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Investigators found the drives Friday afternoon hidden behind a copy machine in the lab's supersecret X Division, FBI officials said. The agency has fingerprinted the drives and is now attempting to confirm they are the same two that lab officials discovered missing the day before a wildfire forced evacuation of the New Mexico facility, officials said.

Investigators found the hard drives in an area that had been searched repeatedly, John C. Browne, director of the weapons lab, told GCN. "We searched this section of the lab thoroughly. We don't understand this," Browne said.

Officials must now determine where the hard drives were before being found behind the copy machine, Browne said. The FBI criminal investigation is continuing, he said.

Although Browne had not seen the recovered hard drives, he said investigators told him they appear to be ones that disappeared. The disappearance turned the heat up on an already-boiling controversy over nuclear weapons lab security and a new round of congressional hearings into security at the laboratory where the first atomic bomb was built in 1945.

The hard drives contain details of how to dismantle various nuclear weapons. They are part of emergency kits used by the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST), a group trained to respond to nuclear accidents or terrorism.

Officials suspect the drives weren't overlooked in the search, but were in fact missing and subsequently returned to the X Division and placed behind the copier.

"We don't know how they were returned," Browne said. "We don't know if they left the building or where they have been. There is still a lot of understanding that needs to go on."

Richardson said Friday afternoon he would continue an investigation into the matter, and he promised disciplinary action would result. Investigators are treating the area where the drives were found as a crime scene, and Richardson said the drives' authenticity was still being evaluated. The FBI reportedly put nearly 60 agents on the scene at the lab when the drives were found.

FBI agents will administer lie-detector tests to 28 individuals with unescorted access privileges and the 57 lab workers holding escorted access, according to Energy's security czar, Air Force Gen. Eugene E.Habiger.

In addition to the FBI/Energy probe, former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, a Republican, and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, are taking an independent look at the issue.

Richardson said he would appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee next week, when "we will have more answers" about the missing data.

The Los Alamos facility is operated by the University of California. Last week, several members of Congress called for the department to terminate the lab's operating contract with the university.

During last week's hearings, Habiger, maintained that the disappearance was probably not the result of espionage.

Testifying before the House Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Habiger said he concluded after an investigation that human error rather than espionage led to the hard drives' disappearance from the New Mexico lab. Lab personnel discovered the problem May 7 when, as a precautionary measure against the approaching fire, they removed a NEST kit from the secure area.

A lab worker grabbed the kit to move it to a vault he deemed safer from the fire and 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, then secured the completed kit it in a fireproof vault, Habiger said. The blaze forced officials to abandon the lab the next day.

But the personnel did not report the missing hardware until May 31, when they notified Browne. [see story at www.gcn.com/vol19_no12/news/2057-1.html].


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