- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2000

U.S. nuclear secrets stored in locked containers in a secure vault at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico are missing, prompting an FBI and Energy Department investigation into what lab officials called "an extremely serious matter."

Highly classified information stored on two hard drives in the lab's "X Division," where nuclear weapons are designed, were missing during a June 1 search after a forest fire threatened the facility, said John Browne, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in a statement yesterday.

"This is an extremely serious matter, and we are taking swift action to deal with it," Mr. Browne said, although he declined to elaborate.

The missing hard drives, each about the size of a deck of cards, are believed to contain weapons data used by the government's Nuclear Emergency Search Team, which responds to nuclear accidents and terrorist threats. In addition to U.S. secrets, the hard drives also are said to contain information on Russian nuclear weapons programs.

Ed Curran, head of the Energy Department's Office of Counterintelligence, said in a separate statement there was "no evidence" to suggest "at this point" that espionage was involved, but he also declined to give details.

FBI spokesman Steven Berry yesterday confirmed only that agents in Albuquerque were conducting a "criminal inquiry" into the missing files, in conjunction with Energy Department officials.

The disappearance of the sensitive files was first reported by the New York Times yesterday on its Web site, noting that the hard drives were missing when investigators searched for them after the fire. The "brush-clearing" blaze, set by the National Park Service, burned 47,000 forest acres, destroyed 405 homes, caused several days of evacuation for 25,000 area residents and created an estimated $150 million cleanup bill for the Los Alamos laboratory.

The fire forced thousands to evacuate a nearby town as well as the Los Alamos facility.

A search of the facility by the Energy Department's new security chief, Eugene Habiger, shortly after the files were discovered to be missing turned up no information on how they disappeared or where they had gone, department officials said.

"If the inquiry reveals that individuals did not fulfill their responsibilities with respect to this matter, they will face certain and appropriate disciplinary actions," Mr. Browne said in his statement.

Los Alamos lab officials late in the evening of May 7 sought to secure the nuclear data from possible harm as wildfires threatened the laboratory complex, but found them missing from their containers in the vault. Three days later, Los Alamos was evacuated because of the fire threat and did not resume significant operation until May 22.

The fire threat and evacuation interrupted the search, but after May 22 Los Alamos officials began "an intensive search" for the material. Still, they did not report it missing for 10 days. Mr. Habiger said the delay in reporting would be looked into as part of the investigation, but that security was maintained during the entire period of the fire threat.

On June 2, Mr. Curran brought in the FBI, and a week ago 22 FBI agents and 12 DOE investigators, led by Mr. Habiger, flew to Los Alamos for an intensive search for the material and investigate its disappearance. But officials still don't know what happened to the two drives.

The lab, managed by the University of California, said in a statement: "Officials are conducting an exhaustive search of computers, safes, containers and vaults and have interviewed all staff members who had access to the vault where the media (nuclear materials) were stored."

Mr. Curran said the Nuclear Emergency Search Team had used the material only a week before it was discovered missing as part of an exercise at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and it has not been ruled out that the material was misplaced at that time. He said such exercises are not unusual.

The Los Alamos facility, where the first nuclear bomb was created more than a half-century ago, has seen its share of criticism over the past few years in connection with accusations that nuclear secrets were illegally obtained by the Chinese government.

In December, a Taiwan-born scientist at the laboratory, a key figure in the Chinese espionage scandal, was indicted by a federal grand jury on 59 counts of illegally removing U.S. nuclear secrets from a computer.

Computer expert Wen Ho Lee was arrested at his home near Los Alamos, then taken before a federal magistrate in Albuquerque. He has since pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. Authorities had fired Mr. Lee in March 1999.

The indictment, sought by U.S. Attorney John Kelly, was handed up by a federal grand jury in Albuquerque. It accused Mr. Lee, 59, of illegally acquiring and receiving restricted data; tampering with, altering and removing restricted data; and gathering national defense information.

It said the scientist downloaded U.S. nuclear secrets about sophisticated weapons and test results from a secured computer at the Los Alamos facility and stored that data on computer tapes that were taken from the site.

The indictment did not accuse Mr. Lee of espionage. Law enforcement authorities said there was insufficient evidence to show he turned over any information to China, He has steadfastly denied stealing U.S. secrets.

Suspected security violations by Mr. Lee and others at Los Alamos have been the focus of the grand-jury investigation in Albuquerque for several months. He had been under investigation by the FBI since 1996.

The decision to seek an indictment in the probe was made by Attorney General Janet Reno, after a meeting at the White House with Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, CIA Director George J. Tenet and Samuel R. Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser.

U.S. intelligence officials first learned of an apparent security breach at the Los Alamos facility in 1995. The federal inquiry centered on accusations that China, during the 1980s, surreptitiously obtained from the Los Alamos laboratory critical information detailing the latest scientific data on the development of "miniaturized" nuclear warheads.

Sources said that information allowed China to make gains in its nuclear warhead program, including development of a multiwarhead missile capable of striking more than one target the W-88, the United States' most advanced and compact nuclear warhead. The warhead is deployed on U.S. Trident II submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

In firing Mr. Lee from his job at the New Mexico facility, officials said he had failed to tell superiors about his contacts with "a sensitive country," failed to "properly safeguard classified material" and attempted to deceive superiors about security-related issues.

The scientist, federal authorities said, failed a polygraph in February. Information on the test and the specific results have not been made public.

Initially, the FBI investigation focused on five Los Alamos officials, although Mr. Lee surfaced as a key player in 1997. At the time, Mr. Freeh told Energy Department officials that an investigation into the suspected leaks had stalled and that the FBI lacked specific evidence to make an arrest. Although the FBI advised the agency that there were sufficient grounds to fire Mr. Lee, Energy Department officials waited 14 months to do so.

The delay in dismissing Mr. Lee, and in the probe itself, prompted concern on Capitol Hill, although the White House denied the probe was hampered in any way. Mr. Clinton's relationship with the Chinese, who encouraged and funneled donations to his two campaigns, heightened the concern.

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