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National Public Radio
Morning Edition
June 19, 2000

Missing Hard Drives Found at Los Alamos National Laboratory

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson says investigators may be close to finding out what happened to two hard drives at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The hard drives contained information used to defuse or disable nuclear weapons. They were in a locked vault in April. In May, they disappeared mysteriously. They turned up Friday behind a copying machine. Today the disks are here in Washington, DC, with the FBI, which hopes to sort out what happened. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


Energy Secretary Bill Richardson says the FBI has now focused its investigation on a few people at Los Alamos. Richardson says those individuals were given polygraph tests and made suspicious statements, contradictory statements, about the locations of the drives. The copy machine area where the drives were found had been previously searched, suggesting someone may have hid the drives there during the investigation. Richardson suspects the drives' disappearance was the result of human fallibility, not espionage. It's possible, he says, someone misplaced the drives and got scared they might lose their job and lied or tried to cover things up. Richardson himself has been in the hot seat since the story broke. This weekend, he defended his management of the lab on NBC's "Meet the Press."

(Soundbite of "Meet the Press")

Secretary BILL RICHARDSON (Energy Department): I am very unhappy about this because I have instituted massive, massive security upgrades at the lab. I have brought increased physical security at the lab--guns, gates, all types of procedures to get in, increased cybersecurity measures, computers so that you can't transfer from unclassified to classified. And most importantly, I've brought in polygraphs.

KESTENBAUM: None of those changes has gotten Richardson off the hook. Three Republican lawmakers called for his resignation Sunday for failing to protect national security. But some analysts contend this recent lapse is not entirely Richardson's fault or the administration's. Steve Aftergood, who studies government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, says this administration has been pushing to increase security for sensitive data, but the plan has met with resistance from critics who want the information to remain accessible. The idea of the initiative is to build higher fences around certain secrets. Aftergood says under the plan, a hard drive like one of the two that disappeared would have been classified as more than just secrets.

Mr. STEVE AFTERGOOD (Federation of American Scientists): It would have been bumped up to the top secret level. And if it had been top secret, then it would have been accountable. And that means it would have been inventoried, it would have been tracked at every moment.

KESTENBAUM: As part of its investigation, the FBI will be trying to figure out if someone had copied information from the hard drives. Aftergood says that kind of analysis is difficult to do. But he says they may learn something from the physical drives themselves. They may bear marks from a particular laptop or even fingerprints. He suspects the drives would have been easy to access should someone have wanted to copy them. The information on them was intended to aid in disarming a nuclear weapon during an emergency, he says, and therefore, not likely to have been encrypted.

Mr. AFTERGOOD: They were intended to be used on a plug-and-play basis, which means that you grab them, you connect them to your laptop and you go. The whole point is to make them as useful as quickly and simply as possible.

KESTENBAUM: The real lesson to the Los Alamos episode, he says, is that technology is making it harder and harder to keep secrets secret. One person with security clearance and access to the Web can disclose in a second what it took hundreds of people years to create. He says that's something we'll have to get used to. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

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