The Lee case raises a warning flag for federal government community

The Lee case raises a warning flag for federal government community

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

The controversial Wen Ho Lee case sends a warning message to government researchers, an advocate for scientists said last week.

As officials continue to debate the merits of federal charges against the former Energy Department nuclear physicist, who was released after a plea bargain, a new report notes that the government's extensive use of electronic documents makes classified information vulnerable.

'The message is: Stay away from the government security apparatus if you possibly can, because they will chew you up and spit you out,' said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

'If you can get a job that does not require a security clearance, that is what you should do,' he said.

Energy officials are trying to balance computer security and work environment issues.

'Now more than ever, [Los Alamos National Laboratory's] mission requires the best that the scientific and engineering community can offer,' Energy spokesman Jim Danneskiold said.

Problem not just at DOE

'The laboratory and the Department of Energy are working hard to ensure that security requirements that protect classified information make sense and maintain a positive working environment for our employees,' he said.

Government security problems extend beyond the Energy labs (see story, Page 1).

Former CIA Director John Deutch recently came under fire for keeping classified defense information on his home computers [GCN, Feb. 21, Page 24]. Defense Secretary William Cohen has been criticized for not reacting more quickly to reports that Deutch had violated rules. Cohen has said he was not privy to CIA documents on the incident.

Authorities had charged Lee with 59 felony counts of mishandling classified information while working at Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. [GCN, Jan. 10, Page 44].

'If you have ever bent or broken a rule as most of us have, you could be vulnerable to the most extraordinary punishment,' Aftergood said. 'That's what this case says.' However, Aftergood acknowledged that it was appropriate for Lee to lose his job.

Under terms of the plea bargain, Lee pleaded guilty to one count of mishandling federal information. The other 58 counts were dropped, and he got a 278-day prison sentence'essentially the time that he had already served in solitary confinement following his December arrest.

An August report from the National Archives criticized government efforts in classifying data, partially blaming a weakness in labeling software.

The report, Information Security Oversight Office's 1999 Report to the President, concluded that the government's shift to an electronic documents environment has complicated the classification process.

For example, documents clearly marked as sensitive or secret on the computer screen did not necessarily bear the same marks when printed, said the report's author, Steven Garfinkel, director of the National Archives and Records Administration's Information Security Oversight Office.

Garfinkel said in talking to agency security personnel he found that on-screen classification markings were automated; for print, users have to identify the security level.

The report, for which Garfinkel reviewed more than 3,000 documents from the Defense Department and intelligence agencies, recommended further training. The report is available online at www.fas.org/sgp/isoo/isoo99.html.

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