FAS | Government Secrecy | June 2000 News ||| Index | Search | Join FAS

Chicago Tribune
June 15, 2000

Missing Nuclear Lab Secrets Spark Call to Tighten Classification Rules

By John Diamond
Washington Bureau

A missing piece of computer hardware no larger than a deck of cards contains "encyclopedic" amounts of information on nuclear weapons design and could have been taken from a vault without any record by any one of two dozen people, federal officials said Wednesday.

Despite its sensitivity and the volume of information it contained, the computer hard drive was not classified at the highest level. Energy Department security specialists now say the U.S. government must revisit its classification system to address the vulnerabilities posed by packing vast numbers of secrets into easily portable computer hardware and software.

As the FBI took over a criminal investigation into the missing hard drive and its duplicate at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Energy Department officials in Washington said the ability to store secrets on compact computer hardware and software demands a new security system.

"The Department of Energy needs to revisit the classification levels for encyclopedic databases," said retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, the department's chief security official. "There is just such a large amount of very sensitive data on one piece of electronic media that we need to review our procedures, and we are going to do that."

Habiger's comments before a joint hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday highlighted the Clinton administration's embarrassment over the missing hard drives. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has said for most of a year that his efforts have improved security at the nuclear weapons labs.

At a hearing Tuesday, John Gilligan, Richardson's chief information officer, said "the state of cyber-security at the Department of Energy is far better today than it was a year ago."

Despite that claim, Habiger and John Browne, director of the Los Alamos lab, conceded Wednesday that the two hard drives should have been designated "top secret" rather than "secret--restricted data." The top secret designation would have required that authorized users of the hard drives sign them out and account for their whereabouts. As it was, 26 officials at Los Alamos had unrestricted access to the X-Division vault where the hard drives were stored.

The drives would have been used by a rapid-response team deployed if a nuclear device were stolen or a terrorist incident developed involving a nuclear weapon. The hard drives contained design information on a variety of nuclear weapons--U.S. and Russian weapons and crude devices that might be built by terrorists--so that the team members could defuse or disarm them in an emergency.

Browne said the data in the hard drives would not necessarily include the detail necessary to design a nuclear device, but could be valuable for defusing a nuclear weapon. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said that from the hard drives terrorists could gain valuable insights into how to prevent U.S. security officials from stopping a terrorist's nuclear attack.

The missing Los Alamos hard drives are only the latest example of such security problems. Former CIA Director John Deutch placed secrets on an unsecured home computer, State Department laptop computers were lost and former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee allegedly transferred nuclear secrets to an unsecured computer. Those cases gave the federal government ample warning of security vulnerability, said Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based group that follows intelligence and national security issues.

"Our security practices are still designed for a hard-copy, paper-document era," Aftergood said. "Fifteen years ago, [convicted spy] Aldrich Ames was walking out of the CIA with shopping bags of secret documents. Now you don't have to carry anything out. You can just e-mail it."

The Clinton administration came under an avalanche of criticism Wednesday on Capitol Hill, and not all of it from Republicans.

"A fellow with a room-temperature IQ ought to be able to look at those procedures and say, 'You know, that's pretty loose,'" said Sen. Richard Bryan, (D-Nev.) of the Intelligence Committee.

Republicans fumed that Richardson let Deputy Energy Secretary T.J. Glauthier speak for him at the hearing. Republicans left a chair empty at the witness table, with Richardson's name tag in place.

"Apparently Secretary Richardson has decided there's something more important to do than account to the American people," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

Richardson said he would testify next week, when more information was available. Meanwhile, on Wednesday he named former Sen. Howard Baker, a Republican of Tennessee, and former Indiana Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton to head a special panel to report on the Los Alamos incident.

Six lab officials have been suspended pending further investigation. Officials said the suspension stemmed from the three-week delay in reporting the missing hard drives up the chain of command.

In a 97-0 vote, the Senate confirmed Air Force Gen. John Gordon, the No. 2 official at the CIA, to take on a new post of security czar at the Department of Energy.

Copyrightę 2000 Chicago Tribune Company

FAS | Government Secrecy | June 2000 News ||| Index | Search | Join FAS