Top officials promise to solve mystery of disappearing, reappearing drives

Top officials promise to solve mystery of disappearing, reappearing drives

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

Senators attacked Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's security record last month after his testimony concerning the disappearance and reappearance of two hard drives at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Los Alamos' John C. Browne says the X Division had been thoroughly searched before the missing drives reappeared.

Richardson told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that security procedures implemented during his tenure were not followed in the incident at the New Mexico nuclear weapons lab, which has been plagued by recent security breaches, many involving systems.

The Energy Department's security woes have spread to headquarters [GCN, June 19, Page 1] and to its Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.

Los Alamos employees noticed the drives were missing May 7 when they sought to place them in a fireproof vault because a wildfire threatened the facility [GCN, May 22, Page 8]. Investigators found the equipment June 16 behind a copier in an area that had previously been searched.

FBI investigators suspect the equipment, used by the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) for responding to nuclear accidents and terrorist attacks, may have been missing since March 28. Energy officials said the last full inventory of NEST equipment took place in January.

Lab director John C. Browne said he was dismayed that the two NEST team members who discovered that the removable drives were missing had waited nearly three weeks to inform him.

One of the 26 NEST members who have unrestricted access to the vault in the supersecret X Division where the units are stored could have taken the drives and secretly copied them at another location, Browne acknowledged. The drives contain details about how to dismantle nuclear weapons.

Precautions taken at the lab in the last year preclude copying large secure files onto lab systems containing unclassified information, he said.

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 by department regulations.

Several committee members dismissed those promises, calling for Richardson's resignation and for the termination of the University of California's contract to run the lab for Energy. A decision concerning the future of the Los Alamos management contract could be made early this month, Richardson said.

What has Los Alamos done?
'Reviewed operations of all vaults

'Expanded logging of all vault entries and exits

'Changed all vault lock combinations

'Reduced access list for vaults and limited-access control areas

'Began putting bar codes on all high-density computer storage media

'Reviewed all nuclear weapons programs' security plans

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, sat in on the hearing and told Richardson that the secretary could find Energy's problems by looking in the mirror.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said Richardson would never be confirmed for another appointment.

Although investigators have yet to determine whether the drives have been copied or compromised, Richardson said, the FBI has verified that the found drives are indeed the ones that disappeared.

The bureau recovered latent fingerprints from wrappings around the drives as well from as the area where the drives were found, he said. A grand jury has been convened in New Mexico to look into the disappearance.

The brouhaha over the lab's latest security crack was sparked by the two NEST members' delay reporting the disappearance and because the lab has no method to track classified information.

The NEST officials notified Browne of the disappearance on May 31, said retired Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, Energy's security czar. Browne promptly notified senior Energy management.

Those NEST members who hold top-secret security clearances have been reassigned to jobs outside the classified area, Browne testified.

Two of six lab managers suspended with pay pending a University of California investigation have returned to work, he said. Four others remain on leave.

The federal government in 1993 loosened restrictions on tracking any data not marked top-secret, Habiger and Browne testified. No one at the lab monitored who had the drives at any given time, the officials said.

To err is '

Habiger said he had not suggested that the system be changed because 'there was no human failure prior to May.'

He said he has since instituted a checkout system at Energy labs. But he also continued to maintain that the disappearance was probably human error and not the result of espionage.

As part of its effort to strengthen security measures, the lab inventoried all its classified and unclassified but sensitive data, Browne said.

That inventory revealed that two outdated floppy disks were missing but later found, Los Alamos lab spokesman Jim Danneskiold said.

The 5 '-inch floppies were not where they had last been when the lab took an inventory in 1998, Danneskiold said. Although he declined to say where they had previously been stored or where the disks were found, he indicated that they were discovered in a locked box attached to a sheet of paper.

Edward J. Curran, Energy's director of counterintelligence, warned the committee to be prepared for further revelations of security problems because the ongoing investigations will likely turn up other breaches.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.