Los Alamos Nuclear Secrets gone; fire may have been decoy

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Monday, June 12, 2000 | Print this story

Nuclear Secrets Missing From Los Alamos Vault

From Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Computer-held nuclear secrets stored in a vault at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have disappeared, prompting a top-level investigation, laboratory and Energy Department officials disclosed Monday. Officials learned of the missing secrets and other sensitive material on June 1 and have not ruled out the possibility that the disappearance of the data is related to the forest fire that threatened the lab and forced its evacuation last month. "This is an extremely serious matter, and we are taking swift actions to deal with it," said John Browne, director of the federal weapons research lab in New Mexico. The laboratory was embroiled in an espionage controversy involving a former lab scientists for much of last year. The scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was arrested in December for misuse of secret nuclear data and awaits trial. Although under investigation for three years in connection with the alleged loss of U.S. nuclear secrets to China, Lee has not been charged with espionage. Ed Curran, director of the Energy Department's counterintelligence office, said there is no indication espionage is involved in the latest disappearance. "At this point there is no evidence that suggests espionage is involved in this incident," Curran said. The secret material was contained in hard drives and discs in containers in a vault in Los Alamos' most highly classified area, the so-called "X Division," where designers of nuclear weapons do their work. Sources said the empty containers were found inside the vault. Additional details about the nuclear material was not immediately available. "Officials are conducting an exhaustive search of computers, safes, containers and vaults and have interviewed all staff members who had access to the vault where the media (nuclear materials) were stored," the laboratory said in a news release. When the loss was discovered, the Energy Department's new security chief, retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, went to Los Alamos and directed an intensive search of but did not find the material, said officials who spoke on condition they would not be identified further. The possibility has not been ruled out that the material disappeared during the turmoil that surrounded the evacuation of the Los Alamos laboratory, when the facilities were threatened by the massive wild fire that destroyed much of the community of Los Alamos and parts of the lab itself. The disappearance of the documents also was being investigated by the FBI and the University of California, Berkeley, which manages the weapons laboratory for the Energy Department. Browne said in a statement that "certain and appropriate" disciplinary action would be taken "if the inquiry reveals that individuals did not fulfill their responsibilities" in safeguarding the material. It's not clear when the material was first discovered missing, although the incident was reported to the Energy Department on June 1. The investigation and search for the material has become more difficult because many of the lab's scientists left the area last month because of the wild fires that swept the region. The lab itself was evacuated May 10 for five days. Officials repeatedly have said that all nuclear material was safeguarded and not threatened by the fires. "Our inquiry has been conducted during a period in which employees are still recovering from the effects of a major emergency disaster," Habiger said in a statement. "Part of the laboratory's rigorous process for resuming operations has included a look at the physical integrity of all its buildings and security systems." Habiger could not be reached for comment.


Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times

-- meg davis (meg9999@aol.com), June 12, 2000



Monday June 12 9:44 PM ET

U.S. Nuclear Weapons Secrets Missing 2 Months

By Zelie Pollon

LOS ALAMOS (Reuters) - Electronically-stored classified information -- believed to include U.S. and Russian nuclear secrets -- disappeared from a vault at the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory two months ago and the FBI has launched an intense search, officials and media said on Monday.

The lab's director, John Browne, said ``classified information'' was missing but gave no details. The New York Times, which broke the story on its Website, said the information was stored on now missing hard drives and included U.S. and Russian nuclear secrets and other sensitive data.

Browne said in a statement that the FBI and investigators from the Department of Energy, which operates the world-famous nuclear facility with the University of California, have been searching for missing data. ``This is an extremely serious matter and we are taking swift actions to deal with it,'' Browne said

Ed Curran, Director of the Department of Energy's Office of Counterintelligence, said, ``At this point there is no evidence that suggests espionage is involved in this incident.''

The disappearance comes after an espionage controversy involving the lab and one of its employees, Dr. Wen Ho Lee, who was fired in March 1999 after allegedly copying nuclear weapons secrets and storing them on an unclassified computer network.

Lee, a U.S. citizen born in Taiwan, was arrested and charged with 59 criminal counts -- but not espionage -- and the lab came under scrutiny for the ease with which he was allegedly able to download and copy sensitive information. Lee has pleaded not guilty.

The Times said the new security breach was not believed to be related to the Lee case and was thought to have occurred long after his dismissal from the lab. The paper also said the missing material included information about the Russian nuclear weapons program.

Browne said a major effort was under way to find the missing electronically-stored data and it was not known if they were just misplaced, stolen or inadvertently destroyed.

``If the inquiry reveals that individuals did not fulfill their responsibilities with respect to this matter, they will face certain and appropriate disciplinary actions,'' he said.

NBC News reported the hard drives were first discovered to be missing two months ago, before the Los Alamos wildfire that forced the lab to shut down on May 8. The lab was closed for two weeks with only a skeleton crew on hand. But lab spokesman John Gustafson said the hard drives were discovered missing ''sometime in May''.

``It was in the course of everyday work. Somebody needed something in there and they discovered them (the drives) missing'', he told reporters.

Gustafson declined to elaborate except to say the person involved was a staff member with clearance for the area where the drives were stored.

Alaska Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski, who heads the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said panel members were informed about the possible loss, but got ``very few details.''

``I can't give a personal assessment of how serious this is, however, based on the information in the New York Times, this could be one of the most significant losses of nuclear weapons information in recent times,'' Murkowski said in a statement.

``While we don't know whether the hard drives are lost, it gravely concerns me that they have even been displaced. If they can't keep track of this kind of information, it raises serious concerns about overall security,'' he said.

Murkowski said he had ordered a staff inquiry and expected to be fully briefed by the Energy Department and the FBI.

``Let's hope the hard drives are found. We don't need another crisis at our nuclear weapons laboratories,'' he said.

The Times said the hard drives were missing when investigators searched for them June 1 after a wildfire scorched the facility, sparing the lab's major buildings but destroying 39 trailers and sheds.

Many of those outbuildings were used as offices for staff members, and the blaze, which began as a controlled burn, wiped out several years worth of scientific research and destroyed some 20 personal computers.

The Times said that the disappearance of the hard drives, which were stored in locked containers in a vault in the laboratory's X Division, where nuclear weapons are designed, could be related to the evacuation of the lab during the fire.

The paper said the hard drives contained nuclear weapons data used by the government's Nuclear Emergency Search Team, which responds to nuclear accidents and terrorist threats.

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), June 13, 2000.

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