Hard drives probably disappeared in March, FBI says

Hard drives probably disappeared in March, FBI says

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

JUNE 21'FBI investigators have pinpointed March 28 as the likely date that a pair of hard drives containing highly secret nuclear weapons data disappeared from the
Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The drives reappeared mysteriously last week.

John C. Browne, director of the New Mexico lab, today told the Senate Armed Services Committee that investigators have indicated that the removable drives, used by the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) to respond to nuclear accidents and terrorist attacks, were gone roughly six weeks before anyone noticed.

Team members on May 7 first discovered that the drives were missing when they went to secure them because of a wildfire in the region. But the NEST team didn't notify Browne that the drives were missing for nearly three weeks [see story at www.gcn.com/vol19_no12/news/2057-1.html].

Browne acknowledged that it is possible that one of the 26 NEST workers with unrestricted access to the vault in the supersecret X Division, where researchers develop nuclear weapons, had taken the drives home and copied them without anyone knowing. But recent security changes, which restrict the ability to download large files from classified systems to unclassified systems, made copying the hard drives on-site impossible, he said.

FBI investigators on June 16 found the hard drives 'under suspicious circumstances' behind a copy machine in the X Division, Browne said. In earlier searches of that area the drives had not been found. The bureau recovered latent fingerprints from the drives and verified that they were the ones missing from the NEST kit, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson testified. Investigators have yet to determine if the drives have been copied or compromised, he said.

The lab reassigned the two NEST members, who first discovered the drives missing and who both have top-secret security clearance, to an area where they have no access to classified data, Browne testified.

Meanwhile, two of six lab managers, working for lab contractor University of California, have returned to work. The university, which manages the lab for Energy, had suspended the six managers with pay pending further investigation, Browne said. The other four managers remain on leave.

Both Richardson and Browne vowed to take action against those responsible for failing to report the hard drives' disappearance within eight hours of the discovery, as required under department regulations. Browne did not learn of the missing drives until May 31; he notified Energy officials the following day.

Several members of the committee called for Energy to terminate the lab's
contract with the university. A decision could be made early next month, Richardson said.

Throughout the investigation, Energy's security czar, retired Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, has maintained that the drives' disappearance was probably human error, not espionage.

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