Los Alamos lab officials have announced that ten computer disks containing classified information have been lost. This is just the latest security failure at the troubled New Mexico nuclear lab. In 1999, lab scientist Wen Ho Lee was discovered to have transferred hundreds of megabytes of classified warhead-design data onto an unprotected computer network and computer tapes. The tapes were said to contain the “crown jewels” of American nuclear weapon design. Lee struck a plea bargain with the government, but the tapes were never recovered.
Over the next two years, the lab suffered repeated computer security incidents. Both disks and whole computers that had processed classified information turned up missing in lab inventories. A government watchdog group learned that, by late 2002, Los Alamos had yet to fix the security vulnerability that had allowed Lee’s illegal transfers. A 2003 Energy Department report concluded that Los Alamos could not be trusted to protect secrets stored on its computers.
Understandably, Energy Department officials are frustrated. One told the Associated Press “after all of the revelations and reviews about security and document control over the past few years, lab employees still have not learned to manage their classified information properly.” Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham pronounced the situation “unacceptable.”
Abraham also said that the latest security failure “reinforced the government’s decision to consider new lab contractors.” Earlier this year, the department announced its intention to open the Los Alamos contract to bidders. The University of California has held the contract, said to be worth two billion dollars, since the lab’s founding in 1942. However much criticism of the University is deserved, its replacement is not likely to resolve security problems at the Lab. Sandia National Lab, also in New Mexico, is run by Lockheed-Martin, one of the likely competitors for the Los Alamos job. This summer Sandia experienced its own computer security scandals and its response?”first deny, then cover-up”?was familiar to all lab watchers.
The university announced a “stand-down” for all lab employees engaged in classified work. During the stand-down, employees will be retrained in procedures for handling classified computer information. University spokesmen said that employees would not be allowed to return to work until the retraining is completed. But this is at least the third such stand-down due to lab security failures since 1999.
Statements out of the lab indicate that the employees think this latest flap has been overblown. A lab spokesman said that the missing disks almost surely were destroyed, but that “paperwork” had not been properly completed. He assured the public that there has been “no threat to national security,” since the disks contained no U.S. nuclear warhead information. Instead, the disks held data on foreign nuclear weapons programs. That type of information is collected by the nation’s intelligence agencies, which have repeatedly expressed concerns about lab security procedures.