Frantic search for lost data at Los Alamos

Director of UC-run lab called to S.F. for meeting with regents

Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer
San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, July 15, 2004

The loss of two storage devices containing classified data at a University of California-run nuclear weapons laboratory is another blow to a university system trying to hang onto its half-century management of the lab.

The devices have been missing for at least a week at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and investigators say they are almost literally turning the lab upside-down in an effort to find them. They're even receiving help from a special team of investigators from Washington that U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham sent to New Mexico shortly after learning of the loss.

Los Alamos officials declined to say Wednesday whether the loss of the devices could threaten U.S. national security. Many such devices at the lab contain information on weapons ranging from chemical explosives to thermonuclear bombs capable of vaporizing cities.

"I can't be specific what the data consists of, I'm sorry. All I can say is this is a very serious issue," Los Alamos spokesman Kevin Roark told The Chronicle. He added: "The search does continue. It is possible that they may never be found."

Among the immediate repercussions:

-- The UC Regents and UC officials have summoned Los Alamos lab Director George "Pete" Nanos to San Francisco to explain what's gone wrong at the lab. Nanos is to testify in a public session after 10 a.m. today at a UC facility at 3333 California St.

-- UC's contract for managing the lab should "immediately" be terminated by the Energy Department "before they further put our national security at greater risk," Executive Director Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based nonprofit group that exposes what it calls abuses and mismanagement by federal agencies, said in a statement Wednesday. The current Los Alamos contract runs out in September 2005, and UC officials have not announced formally whether they'll compete for the next contract.

-- UC's dwindling political support within the U.S. Energy Department apparently has eroded further. Abraham is "extremely displeased" by the loss of the devices, his spokesman Joe Davis said Wednesday.

Over the past two years, Abraham has grown increasingly angered by security problems at the lab, including revelations of missing documents at Los Alamos and issues around the safety of storing plutonium at Livermore. Last year, the scandals helped inspire Abraham's decision to call for opening future contracts to run Los Alamos to bidders other than UC. Yet he recently pleased UC by extending its contract to run the Bay Area's Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons lab for another two years.

A team from the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, ordered to the New Mexico lab by Abraham, already is helping with the investigation, Davis said.

The missing devices are identified as Classified Removable Electronic Media or CREMs, lab officials said. Officials refuse to describe their exact nature or contents.

The story began brewing late Friday afternoon when the lab issued a press release acknowledging that "two items of Classified Removable Electronic Media (CREM) were discovered missing from the Weapons Physics (WP) Directorate. An immediate search did not locate the items. A subsequent and extensive search is currently continuing."

The umbrella term "CREMs" refers to a wide range of electronic devices that can store computer data -- ranging from floppy disks to large, hard disk drives -- and that can be removed from one computer and installed in another.

Roark also acknowledged that, in a related recent incident, lab officials failed to find two computer hard-disk drives in their accustomed places. After a search that lasted "a couple of hours," investigators found the disk drives in a safe place.

Roark said an investigation of the latter incident is under way. If anyone is found to be responsible, he or she might be fired, he added. However, there is no reason to believe the hard drives were misplaced for suspicious or nefarious reasons, he added.

Officials with the Project on Government Oversight accused Los Alamos Wednesday of covering up the brief loss of the hard disk drives. Roark denied this, stating that Energy Department regulations don't require such missing materials to be reported as missing for 24 hours.

Since they were found sooner than that, "those items were, in fact, not considered 'missing,' " Roark said.

The group's statement blasted Los Alamos management and UC: "Los Alamos and the University of California had assured the government that this type of security failure could never happen because of a fail-safe system which was put in place after the Wen Ho Lee debacle in 1999 and the missing hard drives incident (which were later discovered mysteriously behind a copy machine) in 2000."

The Lee case involved a Los Alamos scientist who came under suspicion as a possible spy. He was eventually freed.

Pete Stockton, an official with the nonprofit organization and former special assistant to Clinton administration Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, said: "We would fire the contractor (UC). This has gone on too long, they should be terminated immediately -- like Thursday, Friday! -- and have somebody else run it."

Reaction From the Energy Department:

A spokesman said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is "extremely displeased."

From a watchdog group:

UC's contract at Los Alamos should be terminated immediately "before they further put our national security at greater risk."

From Los Alamos:

A spokesman said, "I can't be specific what the data consists of, I'm sorry. All I can say is this is a very serious issue. ... The search does continue.''