Los Alamos security breach prompts crackdown

The loss of two classified data storage units at the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory has prompted halt to all classified work, a clampdown on security procedures and stern directives from the department's leaders.

This week's incident of missing classified data appears more serious than previous incidents in December, 2003 and May 2004, a Los Alamos spokesman said.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham condemned the security breach, and lab director G. Peter Nanos told lab employees during an all-hands meeting on July 7 that 'if you can't keep track of classified materials, you can't work here,' said spokesman Kevin Roark.

Nanos told the employees that 'If you think the rules aren't meant for you or that security is trivial or inconvenient, then by all means seek employment elsewhere,' Roark said.

Los Alamos employees handle material known as crem, or Classified Removable Electronic Media that comes in various forms. Laboratory officials declined to say what type of media was involved in this week's incident.

But Roark said the lab routinely handles a fluctuating inventory of 30,000 to 40,000 separate crem items, all of which are subject to extremely strict security controls. They are supposed to be stored in safes, vaults or room-sized vaults when lab employees are not actually using the data storage units.

Lab employees discovered the most recent incident of missing crem as they prepared for an experiment, Roark said.

In the two previous incidents of missing crem, the items in question had been slated for destruction but not recorded as having been destroyed. 'We concluded that the paperwork was incomplete,' Roark said.

The current incident is more serious because the crem items in question were not slated for destruction. 'It is more serious because it looks like willful disregard of the rules,' the spokesman said. 'There are very strict regulations about the movement of crem from location to location,' he said.

'The problem appears to be that these rules were not followed,' Roark said. The security evaluation so far indicates that the data has not been subject to theft or internal malfeasance but that one or more lab employees did not follow security procedures. 'There is nothing to indicate that these items migrated off into the world.'

Los Alamos has more than 4,000 employees, and the vast majority of them have been affected by the suspension of classified work that began on Wednesday. The lab's security staff is conducting a wall to wall inventory of classified information.

'The standown is going to last however long it needs to last,' Roark said. The wall to wall security inspection will take at least a few days for some parts of the lab and even longer for other segments of the lab that are more complicated, he said.

Security experts will examine paper records of the location of crem and also use computer forensic techniques as necessary to track down the material and the person who let it go astray.

'It is absolutely possible that they [the crem items] have been mislaid. It is also possible that somebody knows where they are and is not saying because they know they would get in trouble,' Roark said.

All laboratory employees who handle classified materials will attend security training courses as part of the standown, he said.

The University of California's contract to operate the nuclear weapons laboratory expires in September, 2005 and will be put out for competitive bid.

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