Security lacking for Los Alamos classified network, GAO says

The Los Alamos National Laboratory, which oversees the nation’s nuclear stockpile, is not adequately protecting its classified network, leaving it possibly vulnerable to attack, the Government Accountability Office warned in a recent report.

Security controls and policies were not fully implemented or consistently applied and kept up to date, the report said. It laid much of the blame for the inadequacies on a decentralized information security program that has resulted in inconsistent enforcement and technical weaknesses.

“Specifically, LANL’s central cybersecurity organization did not have the authority to enforce compliance with the laboratory’s policies and procedures,” the report's authors wrote. “Each operating division at the laboratory is responsible for managing and securing its computer systems that are connected to the classified computer network, and each division approaches cybersecurity differently. The result has been a patchwork of cyber security practices and procedures, which increases the risk of compromise and hampers the laboratory’s ability to effectively secure information on its classified computer network.”

GAO found that there had been at least short-term improvements in information security in the past two years but said that the lab’s ability to make and maintain long-term improvements remained unclear and that more federal oversight was needed from the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees Los Alamos. As of February 2009, NNSA had two full-time equivalent positions to oversee security at the lab, which it said was inadequate.

NNSA generally agreed with a long list of improvements recommended by GAO but said that the lab should get more credit for the improvements that have been made.

“To the LANL’s credit, a number of key technical issues and policy implementation concerns have been or are currently being address[ed] with Correction Action Plans,” NNSA associate administrator for management and administration Michael C. Kane wrote in response to the report. “Although LANL capability to sustain security improvements over the long term have been in question in the past, there has not been enough time to measure sustainability after the implementation of the Compliance Order to determine if the problem has been resolved.”

Kane said that further assessments should be made in the future.

The laboratory, which is operated on behalf of NNSA by Los Alamos National Security LLC, a consortium of contractors, has been plagued through the last 10 years with security lapses and the loss or data. It was ordered by the Energy Department to make improvements to its information security in a 2007 compliance order.

Despite progress made under the order, GAO found vulnerabilities in several areas of the classified network, including the authentication and authorization of users, the use of encryption for classified information, monitoring and auditing compliance with security policies, and software configuration assurance.

Among the specific shortfalls GAO found:

  • A lack of comprehensive risk assessments to ensure that appropriate security controls are in place.
  • A lack of detailed implementation guidance for key control areas such as marking the classification level of information stored on the classified network.
  • Inadequate specialized training for users with security responsibilities.
  • Failure to adequately develop and test disaster recovery and contingency plans.

Since fiscal 2001, the lab has spent $433 million in 2009 dollars to operate and support its classified network, about $45 million of that for core security programs. But lab officials complained that security funding was inadequate in 2007 and 2008.

In fiscal 2007, the lab requested more than $17 million for its classified and unclassified cybersecurity program operations but received $15 million from NNSA. In fiscal 2008 it requested $27 million and received $18 million. Officials warned that the shortfalls would limit the laboratory’s ability to provide forensics capabilities for incident management, implement an effective inventory and patch management program, integrate two-factor authentication, and integrate identity management software.

NNSA’s CIO said that that the lab’s budget requests exceeded available resources and could only be partially funded.

GAO recommended that Los Alamos implement comprehensive risk assessments for the classified network, accompanied with adequate security policies and programs that includes better training, network monitoring and management. Staffing requirements also should be evaluated, GAO recommended.

“Should a determination be made that additional federal cybersecurity staff is needed, actions should be taken by the manager of the Los Alamos Site Office to acquire sufficient cybersecurity staff, ensure that staff receive adequate training, and maintain the skills necessary to perform adequate oversight and enforce compliance with NNSA cybersecurity requirements,” GAO auditors wrote.

GAO also submitted a classified report in July containing specific security recommendations for the laboratory.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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