Senator suggests 'missing' disks may not be missing

August 11, 2004
The Associated Press State & Local Wire

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.: A New Mexico senator says two computer disks said to contain classified information and thought to be missing from Los Alamos National Laboratory may not be missing after all.

The supposed disappearance of the two disks, which are at the heart of a scandal that has led to a near-total shutdown of classified work at the nuclear lab, may merely have been the result of a fouled-up inventory system, U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said Tuesday

A day after Domenici toured the lab with lab Director Pete Nanos, the senator said they "reviewed step by step what probably happened to the disks in question."

"It may be that what we have here is a false positive - the system says something is missing when it is not," said Domenici. "And just as if it were a medical test, it is better to find out the inventory was wrong than that the disks were actually missing. But this entire situation only reinforces that we need to improve the inventory system."

The supposedly missing disks have prompted a wall-to-wall inventory at the lab, idled nearly all classified work and prompted the suspension of some workers. Since the disks were declared missing July 14, investigators have said they were stymied on their whereabouts.

The apparent security lapse also has drawn outcries from Congress and senior official at the Energy Department, putting in question the fate of the 61-year-old institution - the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

"I will tell you that whether or nor the disks were missing, Los Alamos' system of tracking its classified inventory is clearly a mess if we cannot tell if classified material is missing," Domenici said.

The scenario considered most likely is that the two disks never existed at all, two sources speaking on condition of anonymity told The Associated Press. The confusion apparently resulted from two extra bar-code stickers being left on a sheet of 20 that were used to label 18 disks.

"Apparently they print out bar codes and they printed out 20 bar codes but only had 18 disks, and those other two bar codes were never destroyed, so it appeared that there were two missing disks," one of the sources said.

KRQE-TV in Albuquerque, citing anonymous sources, reported that the FBI has concluded the disks were never missing.

Kevin Roark, a spokesman with the lab, said Tuesday that the investigation was ongoing and he couldn't comment until the results were finalized.

Bill Elwell, an Albuquerque-based spokesman for the FBI, which is involved in the case, declined to comment.

"We still have an investigation going on, so I can't comment on any development either within our own investigation or outside of it," Elwell said.

A senior investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, which has been critical of the lab, said he had doubts that an inventory problem was to blame. Why, he asked, would it take so long to realize that was the problem?

"It makes no sense to me. This theory was floated about a week ago, and it didn't stick. It doesn't seem plausible," Pete Stockton said. "I've done a lot of these types of investigations and you'd nail this one in an hour or two."

Since the scandal broke, 23 workers at the lab have been placed on leave, 19 in connection with the missing disks and four as part of an investigation into a laser mishap that injured a lab intern.

In suspending the workers last month, Nanos said they would not be allowed back until their cases are resolved. He did not identify the workers, but of the jobs they perform, he said: "Suffice to say it's all levels."

The woes are the latest in a series of embarrassments that have prompted federal officials to put the Los Alamos management contract, held by the University of California, up for the first time in the history of the lab.

Nestled in the hills of northern New Mexico, Los Alamos has been plagued in recent years by a series of embarrassments, from credit card fraud to disappearing files and safety lapses. The lab, which employs about 12,000 people, was created in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project that ushered in the nuclear age.

AP reporters Erica Werner in Washington and Sue Major Holmes in Albuquerque contributed to this report