Los Alamos lab's security appears great on paper

Glowing evaluation comes in wake of recent lapses in handling of nuclear data

By: Ian Hoffman, Staff Writer
Oakland Tribune
Saturday, July 31, 2004

Faced by irate congressmen, the Bush administration's chief nuclear-weapons executive condemned recent losses of two drives of nuclear secrets at Los Alamos National Laboratory, saying "there is something about the Los Alamos culture that we have not yet beaten into submission."

But on paper, where contract fees for Los Alamos manager University of California are most at stake, his agency -- the National Nuclear Security Administration -- has awarded top marks to Los Alamos for its handling of classified data for the last four years.

"It's totally outrageous," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group that has criticized management and security in the U.S. weapons complex.

For three weeks, a near-unanimous chorus in Congress, the U.S. Energy Department and the University of California have faulted a "culture of arrogance" at Los Alamos for its security failings.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham last week branded Los Alamos' security failings "widespread" and ordered a national shutdown of all work with classified, portable disks, tapes and drives.

Yet the lab's closest overseers at the NNSA, headed by former arms-control negotiator Linton Brooks, have largely been spared. Critics say the agency is not rising to the mission that Congress intended four years ago, when lawmakers created the NNSA to halt security scandals and increase accountability.

"There continues to be an ongoing pattern of business management failure and security problems, particularly at Los Alamos, that administrator Brooks has thus far been unable to resolve," Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Penn., said recently, adding that "the NNSA experiment has not been a great success."

Brian said NNSA officials in Los Alamos should have spotted and fixed the problem earlier.

"That office is supposed to be the first line of defense and they're repeatedly falling down on the job," Brian said. "It takes the secretary of energy to notice something's wrong, yet there's nobody down the chain of command who noticed a problem at Los Alamos."

Creating a new, semi-independent agency out of the Energy Department's old weapons arm to oversee U.S. weapons labs and factories was controversial. Critics said the new agency was too close in personality to the complex and could not be trusted with an oversight role.

As if to reinforce the closeness of the labs and the NNSA, the University of California is hiring two senior NNSA executives, including chief of staff John Ventura, to run key portions of its weapons program.

"It isn't two different cultures, it's one culture," Brian said. "We absolutely have a revolving door."

The last time that federal security overseers in Los Alamos downgraded the lab's protection of classified information was in 1999, the year that Los Alamos engineer Wen Ho Lee was found to have downloaded nuclear-weapons design software and multiple H-bomb designs to portable tapes.

Los Alamos' rating for "classified matter protection" dipped to "marginal," a mid-level grade.

The next year, two laptop hard drives of multiple nations' nuclear-weapons designs disappeared for at least two weeks. Federal security officials raised the grade to "satisfactory."

That's the highest of three possible ratings. The NNSA -- created by Congress to tighten security and accountability after the scandals of 1999 and 2000 -- continued to grade Los Alamos' handling of classified material as satisfactory in 2001, 2002 and 2003.

"It reminds you of Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average," said Steven Aftergood, a secrecy and security researcher at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, referring to Garrison Keillor's fictional town. "As a diagnostic tool, it's not worth very much. Judging by this report, it turns out there's no problem, and everything's fine. But of course, everything's not fine. What is termed 'satisfactory' is anything but."

NNSA spokesman Anson Franklin said the agency's evaluators looked at Los Alamos' procedures for handling classified documents, weapons components and digital storage, such as CDs, drives and tapes.

"It is the contractor's responsibility to make sure the procedures are followed," Franklin said. "It is clear that the procedures were not followed at Los Alamos, and the contractor had trouble enforcing the procedures and getting certain personnel to follow them."

The missing hard drives were found within 24 hours. But lab and federal investigators have been unable to locate the Zip drives after scouring Los Alamos for three weeks.

They disappeared from a safe at the end of a hall by a soda machine. No librarian could see the safe, it was not monitored by video camera and check-out procedures were on a kind of honor code.

As part of his nationwide stand-down, Abraham ordered that all portable electronic media classified "secret" or higher be kept in vaults under direct supervision of librarians and that a formal checkout process be instituted. Los Alamos' latest rules allow scientists who check out classified disks to loan them to colleagues until the end of the next business day.

"The lesson we've learned from looking into this is that the procedures aren't tight enough and so we're changing the procedures," Franklin said.

Contact Ian Hoffman at ihoffman@angnespapers.com.