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Los Alamos didn't require sign-out sheets, panel told

By Audrey Hudson


Energy Department procedures have not required classified documents to be signed in and out by users for 12 years, a congressional investigator told lawmakers yesterday.

An investigator for the General Accounting Office told the House Commerce Committee that since 1988, and likely even before that, the Energy Department "has not and does not require a sign-out sheet" for secret or even top secret material.

Other requirements for protecting and controlling secrets have been discontinued, said Jim Wells, the GAO investigator. For example, the Los Alamos weapons lab no longer requires frequent inventories or unique identification numbers for classified material.

In 1988 "complete accountability was required," said Mr. Wells, but even then there was no sign-out or sign-in requirement for secrets kept in areas where access was highly controlled, such as Los Alamos' "X Division" complex where nuclear weapons designers worked.

The administrator of the Energy Department's National Security Administration admitted yesterday it will take years to improve security and stop information leaks at U.S. nuclear facilities.

Gen. John Gordon told a special House panel that changing the casual attitude of scientists and other employees who guard the nation's secrets would be a slow and deliberate process.

"There are no magic solutions; we'll just have to sit down and make it happen," Gen. Gordon said. "It will be a gradual approach with every step locked in place."

Gen. Gordon heads the new agency overseeing the nation's nuclear weapons complexes. The National Security Administration was mandated by Congress after Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee was arrested and charged last year with illegally transferring restricted files from secured to non-secure computers and to computer tapes.

Gen. Gordon was confirmed to the top post less than two weeks ago by the Senate.

Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry, Texas Republican and chairman of the Special Oversight Panel on Department of Energy Reorganization, agreed that problems within the nuclear weapons complex are too inbred and long-standing to be solved quickly.

"The Department of Energy has been plagued by 20 years of mismanagement and systemic dysfunction," Mr. Thornberry said. "While I have complete confidence that Gen. Gordon will make the changes that need to be made to keep our nuclear secrets and weapons safe and secure, I do have some concern that some in Congress might be expecting too much too soon.

A General Accounting Office study last year found the Energy Department was not performing routine background checks at its nuclear facilities. Required background checks on foreign visitors were conducted less than 10 percent of the time, allowing visitors with questionable backgrounds and connections access to the labs.

The GAO contends security is weak throughout laboratories responsible for designing and maintaining the nation's nuclear weapons. One unidentified facility could not account for 10,000 classified documents. Equipment and property worth millions of dollars were missing from others.

 This article is based in part on wire service reports.

-- Deb M. (, July 12, 2000

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