U.S. Energy Department officials have issued yet another order to tighten security at the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories. The order comes after the revelation of more security and management scandals in the lab complex. It follows a consistent pattern of recent years. A scandal is uncovered, then denied by lab and federal officials. When reports are found to be accurate, high-level officials issue orders to tighten security, then assure the Congress and the public that everything is in order. Recall then-Secretary Bill Richardson’s 1999 pledge that “our nuclear secrets are safe.” Less then six months later, computer hard drives containing highly classified information were discovered missing at Los Alamos.
The latest scandal involves security problems at Sandia National Lab in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As usual, these revelations were accompanied by allegations that lab managers covered up the misdeeds and then obstructed the ensuing investigation. The lab hired two outside experts to review its actions and a declassified version of their report is posted on the Internet website of a government watchdog outfit. The report is considered by many to be a whitewash; nevertheless, it raises serious questions about the protection of our nuclear secrets.
Most of the allegations involve security forces hired to protect the lab. These include unauthorized breaks by on-duty personnel and a missing set of master keys. The report does not say whether the missing keys were ever recovered. Insiders allege that no locks were changed after the loss was discovered. That violates a cardinal rule of security policies and procedures. There is no reference to this in the report.
Another security force officer was caught stealing lab computer equipment and software. He was supplementing his income by selling this equipment to other members of the guard force. The individual was allowed to resign from the lab. Several security officers thought that was an effort by the lab to cover up the scandal. They thought the individual should have been prosecuted.
The most serious finding of the report involved the lab’s intelligence unit. A member of the intelligence computer support team gained unauthorized access to computers in his unit and in other Sandia elements. After he was detected and confronted with evidence of his misdeeds, he erased several hundred megabytes of data from his computer hard drive. The report also indicates that he had sexual relations with another member of the unit. He apparently photographed these acts and then displayed the pictures on the internal lab network.
The report concluded that the unit’s senior managers interfered with the investigation of this individual. They advised witnesses not to volunteer any information to investigators. They withheld imaged copies of the individual’s hard drive until he had destroyed the computer. Shortly after the report was released, the senior vice president of this unit resigned and a line manager was reassigned. This new lab scandal received some local attention, but was ignored by the national media.