Associated Press
May 20, 2004

Lab says missing classified data no threat to security

By Richard Benke

Classified information was discovered missing at Los Alamos National Laboratory this week, but a lab spokesman said the data, destined for destruction, cannot jeopardize national security.

The material, part of what the lab calls Classified Removable Electronic Media, was still unaccounted for Thursday, said LANL spokesman Kevin Roark. A federal review team says it's set to investigate.

"This in our view is not a major event and it's certainly not a breach of security," Roark said.

The missing item was described as a recordable data storage and retrieval device. Roark said lab employees conducting a re-inventory of classified information could not locate it.

"It's our strong belief that (the device) was either destroyed or retasked (reused), but the proper paperwork wasn't done to track its destruction or reuse," Roark said. "We haven't any reason to believe it wasn't destroyed or reused."

The lab says the recordable device in question was slated for destruction in March as part of a move to reduce Classified Removable Electronic Media.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, said the lab cannot have it both ways: "If the compromise of this material is not a problem, as they say, then it should not be classified. If it is properly classified, then its compromise by definition could pose a threat to national security."

Aftergood added: "It may be that the universe of classified information is too big."

He said he suspects it could be smaller - and if it were smaller, that would make it easier to keep secure.

"I think that's the direction in which security policy at the lab needs to move," Aftergood said.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group that has uncovered Los Alamos issues before, said no matter how the lab spins it, "classified data is missing once again from Los Alamos."

U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he has been assured by LANL officials the missing information contained no nuclear weapons data.

"While troubling, I am hopeful that the media has either been destroyed or incorrectly inventoried, or will be located soon," Udall said of the incident.

The National Nuclear Security Administration announced Thursday it was sending a review team "to assess the circumstances of this incident as well as all aspects, including the laboratory's response to it (and) institutional procedures for handling and destroying classified media and materials," NNSA spokesman Bryan Wilkes said.

Wilkes said the lab "followed all proper procedures and notified us ... in a timely manner after it was discovered."

"We recognize," Wilkes said, "that los Alamos has undertaken extensive efforts to improve its protection for classified materials, but at the same time we're extremely disappointed.

"This incident just shows the importance of implementing as soon as possible the security initiatives recently announced by Secretary Abraham," he added.

"It's our expectation that this will not happen again," he said. "We take it seriously. Security is paramount to us."

POGO's Brian remarked that the DOE's plan to go to a diskless data storage system within five years was too slow.

"Five years is too long," she said. "DOE's proposed initiative to secure classified data in the nuclear weapons complex should begin immediately."

The lab, operated by the University of California under contract with the Department of Energy, has suffered a string of embarrassing management failures in recent years. They include reports of financial abuse by employees, two misplaced computer hard drives with secret nuclear-related material and the firing of two lab investigators who raised concerns about management.

Late last year, Los Alamos management halted operations at its Nuclear Nonproliferation Division after an inventory was unable to account for nine floppy disks and a large-capacity storage disk which were believed to contain some classified information.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said then that misplaced classified information at the lab was the type of management failure that prompted the department to allow competition for a new contractor to run the lab.

Abraham announced in April 2003 there would be competitive bidding for the $2 billion contract to run the lab when the university's current contract expires in September 2005.

Brian said this week's incident makes it imperative that the Department of Energy come up with a system that eliminates such problems.

"We're concerned at the long string of incidents of lost classified material at Los Alamos," said Brian. "We believe the secretary's (Abraham) proposal to move to a system where this is no longer possible needs to be implemented immediately and it needs to begin at Los Alamos."

Brian's POGO organization was an early channel of information about the lab credit card and accounting scandal that brought the replacement of former lab director John Browne by Pete Nanos.

The University of California has run the lab since its inception as headquarters of the Manhattan Project, the secret effort to create the atomic bomb during World War II.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press