Energy chastised over security
- By Judi Hasson
- Jun 19, 2000
The scandal over two missing computer drives containing nuclear secrets
from the Los Alamos National Laboratory is raising new questions about whether
the Energy Department can handle security at its defense facilities.
Members of Congress expressed outrage last week over the disclosure
that lab employees discovered classified material missing on May 7, but
did not report it to their superiors for three weeks. Energy officials,
as well, vented their frustration over the breakdown in their security system.
"Frankly, if one of these people had discovered his car stolen from
a garage, they would not have waited one day," said Energy Deputy Secretary
Lab director John Browne said he was not going to make any excuses. But
he said Los Alamos was faced with chaos last month when raging wildfires
threatened to engulf the area and destroy the lab.
"I'm not going to use the fire as an excuse for this," Browne said. "People
do make mistakes under stress."
But lawmakers said this is the latest in a long stream of security violations
involving Energy facilities. Last year, former Los Alamos scientist Wen
Ho Lee was charged with copying top-secret computer files that have never
been found. He's now awaiting trial.
Lawmakers began raising new questions about security within hours after
the latest lapse was disclosed, and they dismissed Energy officials' explanations
that computer drives may have been misplaced, not stolen.
"Some of their most sensitive nuclear information seems to have walked
out the door," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate
Select Committee on Intelligence.
"I seriously question whether we have better security at our Wal-Marts
than at our labs," said Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.).
Lawmakers also were angered because Energy Secretary Bill Richardson
declined to appear at the hearing. As the nation's chief Energy official,
he is responsible for overall security at Energy's nuclear facilities. Although
he issued a statement expressing his outrage, he did not appear before the
intelligence committee hearing June 14.
Retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, now director of Energy's Office
of Security and Emergency Operations, said that more than 100 interviews
have been conducted by the FBI, which has opened a criminal investigation,
and that 28 people who had unescorted access to the vault where the computer
drives were kept would undergo polygraph tests.
"We will not tolerate security lapses at DOE," Habiger said.
Nevertheless, the missing computer drives have already put Energy on
alert that it has to close its security holes and close them quickly to
halt the political and national security damage from the latest incident.
Work has been suspended at Los Alamos while officials continue to search
for the computer drives. Six lab employees who had access to the vault
have been placed on leave, and the CIA has been called in to assess whether
there has been damage to national security.
Among the flaws highlighted during the hearings were the lack of a requirement
that visitors to the vault sign in and that the classified material be immediately
available for SWAT teams in the event of a nuclear threat from terrorists.
In addition, some lawmakers expressed concern that the lab is run by
the University of California, which is conducting its own investigation
into the chain of command involving the disclosure.
"It gives me no confidence when you tell me there's an academic group
looking into it," said Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.).
Energy officials have promised new measures to protect the nation's
nuclear secrets. Richardson appointed two former members of Congress — Rep.
Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) — to conduct an investigation
and make recommendations about security measures.
Meanwhile, the Senate swiftly confirmed the No. 2 man at the CIA to
head a new nuclear weapons agency within Energy. Air Force Gen. John Gordon,
now deputy CIA director, won unanimous confirmation Wednesday after his
nomination had been held up for months. The vote was 97-0.