- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

The FBI will begin administering polygraph tests today to workers at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory who had access to two now-missing top-secret computer hard drives containing U.S. nuclear secrets.
A day after government officials disclosed the missing hard drives, Senate Republicans yesterday angrily called on Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to explain how the highly sensitive tapes disappeared.
"You can point the finger at one man," said Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, referring to Mr. Richardson, who last year promised a "zero-tolerance security policy" for the department.
"He gave us the assurance that everything was under control," Mr. Warner said, adding he will ask Mr. Richardson and other top Energy Department officials to testify at a still-unscheduled hearing to determine the cause of the latest security breach.
Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Commerce Committee, called the disappearance of the hard drives evidence of "nothing less than a failure of leadership" by Mr. Richardson, considered by some to be a top Democratic contender for the vice-presidential slot.
Said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, Alaska Republican and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, "It's starting to look like our national security is going up in smoke like the area around Los Alamos."
Members of the Nuclear Emergency Support Team in Los Alamos discovered the disappearance when they entered the vault to take three nuclear kits to safety as wildfires raged in the area, forcing the closing of the 43-square-mile facility for about two weeks.
The missing hard drives, each about the size of a deck of cards, contain information used by the team to respond to nuclear accidents or terrorist acts. They describe sensitive and highly technical nuclear weapons data needed to disarm and dismantle an array of U.S. and Russian nuclear devices in an emergency or terrorist attack.
The hard drives were taken from locked containers in the Los Alamos national laboratory's "X Division," where nuclear weapons are designed. They were discovered missing May 7 but not reported by Los Alamos officials to the Energy Department in Washington until June 1.
The FBI, the lead agency in an ongoing "criminal inquiry," already has interviewed 90 persons in the probe, and will begin the polygraph examinations today. The 90 had access to the secure vaults where the hard drives were stored, including 28 who could enter the area unescorted. The FBI will identify those it wants to undergo polygraph examinations.
The White House yesterday called the security breach "troubling," but offered its continued support of Mr. Richardson.
"The president has confidence in Secretary Richardson," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. "We've done an enormous amount as far as changing the security culture at the Department of Energy, at the labs. But I think we have to wait and see, and get some of these questions answered to see what more we may have to do.
"There's a number of troubling questions raised by this, but I think we need to let the investigation take place before we try to reach any conclusion about these issues," he said.
Last May, Mr. Richardson said there was a "zero tolerance security policy," that "no security infractions are acceptable," and that penalties would be strengthened. He said those involved in "verified unintentional or reckless breaches that create a significant risk of a national security compromise or that display a willful disregard for security procedures" would be disciplined.
Mr. Richardson said yesterday he was "outraged" by the Los Alamos security lapse but doubted it was espionage and recommended an independent panel to probe security lapses at Los Alamos. The White House later announced that former Sen. Howard Baker, Tennessee Republican, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, Indiana Democrat, would head the panel.
Mr. Lockhart, in a statement, said he expects efforts to be "thorough, expeditious and conducted in a manner that does not interfere with the FBI's investigation of this very serious matter."
The unexplained disappearance of the hard drives comes in the wake of an espionage scandal involving former Los Alamos computer scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was fired and later indicted by a federal grand jury on 59 counts of illegally removing U.S. nuclear secrets from a computer.
On Capitol Hill, the missing hard drives sparked new concern about security at the Energy Department laboratories, particularly Los Alamos. Retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, the department's top security official, told the House Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations it did not appear espionage was involved, although he could not explain how the hard drives came to be missing.
Gen. Habiger confirmed that the FBI was investigating the incident as a possible case of espionage, and Mr. Lockhart, during a press briefing at the White House, said espionage "isn't something we can rule out, which is why the FBI is involved."
The hard drives were discovered missing as a potentially deadly forest fire threatened the facility, although no effort was made for 17 days to interview people about the missing data. The "brush-clearing" blaze, set by the National Park Service, burned 47,000 acres, destroyed 405 homes, caused the evacuation of 25,000 residents and created an estimated $150 million cleanup bill for the Los Alamos laboratory.
Gen. Habiger said after the discovery, the lab was evacuated and most of its workers their homes threatened by fire scattered with only security and firefighters left at the facility. Asked why those with access to the vault were not immediately identified and questioned, Gen. Habiger said the focus was "on saving the laboratory from destruction from the fire."
He said an "intensive" search for the tapes began May 24, after the lab had been reopened.
Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican and subcommittee chairman, described the loss of the hard drives as "startling" and said "real security" at Los Alamos was going to require additional changes in how the Energy Department and how its labs control their classified data.
"Americans everywhere want absolute assurances that our nuclear secrets remain just that secret," he said. "Sadly, today's headlines are indeed startling regarding the missing disks and the unsuccessful attempts of answering the many questions that are now out there."
Mr. Upton also criticized department officials in Washington, whom he said failed to properly oversee security issues despite Mr. Richardson's "professed commitment over one year ago to make security and cyber-security a top priority throughout the department."
"I find the whole situation bewildering," he said. "How could [the Energy Department], which was the catalyst for the security changes at the nuclear weapons labs last year, leave its own system so vulnerable to misuse?"
The subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, said he also was "very concerned" that the department had no idea what happened to the hard drives.
"However, what is more concerning is the laissez-faire attitude Los Alamos national laboratory and the Department of Energy have displayed in trying to ascertain what happened to highly classified information," he said, noting that one department official told reporters it was premature to call the incident a security breach.
"I, for one, think it is a security breach … no one can say what has happened to the hard drives, who had control of the hard drives or who last had access to them," he said.
Mr. Stupak said he also was concerned Los Alamos took three weeks to alert Energy Department officials in Washington that the hard drives were missing. "This is not a joke. We're talking about highly classified nuclear weapons data," he said. "We need answers and we need results."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide