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New York Daily News
June 23, 2000

Security Lapse Was Minor But Oh, the Outrage

by Lars-Erik Nelson

WASHINGTON - As it turns out, the only damage done by the Case of the Missing Hard Drives at Los Alamos National Laboratories is political: Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who had hopes of being the Democratic nominee for vice president, is now radioactive.

After this latest Los Alamos scandal, Richardson couldn't even be appointed ambassador to Guinea-Bissau, where, at last report, the code clerks have to wear gas masks because the embassy is collapsing into a sewer.

An outraged fellow Democrat, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, told Richardson he would never again survive a Senate confirmation hearing. "You have squandered your treasure," Byrd said.

Yet as best we can determine, the hard drives, which contain information on how to disarm a nuclear weapon, were at all times within the secure confines of the Los Alamos laboratory. Moreover, they were in the custody of one or more of the 26 professionals who staff the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, all of whom have top security clearances.

The FBI found no evidence of espionage. Nevertheless, senators of both parties were shocked to find that the nuclear emergency officers could take the hard drives, classified as secret, into and out of a secure vault without signing for them.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) asserted that such a thing had never happened before and blamed President Clinton for willfully destroying national security procedures.

If you can blame Clinton for missing hard drives at Los Alamos, you could equally blame President Ronald Reagan for the Aldrich Ames spy case, says Steven Aftergood, a secrecy specialist at the Federation of American Scientists. "Reagan bears just as much responsibility for Ames as Clinton does for Los Alamos -- which is to say, none at all," he says.

The security procedures that so shocked the Senate Armed Services Committee were relaxed by President George Bush in one of his last acts. Further, Bush's executive order applies across the government, not just in the Energy Department. It was a cost-cutting measure: So much information is classified as secret that keeping track of it all would have eaten up a lot of the defense budget.

Former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary tried to persuade the Pentagon to separate real secrets from the chaff -- and protect the real secrets. The Pentagon refused. Everything was going to remain secret, but it would not have to be tracked.

YOU CAN SEE THE Pentagon's point: If all documents that are classified secret had to be signed in and out -- even when you go to lunch -- there would be no time to do much of anything else.

Yet there is no wrath like the wrath of a U.S. senator who suspects a security breach. Oh, the paroxysms of indignant patriotism that gush forth! Oh, the accusations of perfidy! Oh, the opportunity to appear on TV as a defender of mom, the flag and apple pie!

The simplest security plan for Los Alamos would be to isolate it as it was during World War II, when only the director, Robert Oppenheimer, was allowed to have a telephone -- and even that was tapped. But if you do that, how do you recruit top scientists to work there, especially in peacetime?

The answer has to be a compromise, and a compromise involves taking some security risks for the sake of efficient operation. Los Alamos is no good to our national security if it is totally secure but produces no usable results.

"This whole debate has been really degrading," Aftergood says. "You don't want the Congress dictating the details of security policy. There has to be risk management -- you need to balance off the need for security with the need to function."

But just try making that argument to a senator in full cry. Richardson, who has tightened security at the labs, tried to defend himself, but it was hopeless. The Senate has found a witch to burn, and he is it.

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