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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 47, June 2000

Los Alamos Security Scare

The US Energy Department was rocked by a fresh security scare during the period under review, with two computer hard drives, reportedly containing highly classified nuclear weapons information, discovered to be missing from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The loss of the hard drives was made public on June 12; on June 16, they reappeared in a previously searched area of the lab. According to an Energy Department press release (June 16):

"The hard drives were visually validated; however, official validation of the hard drives' authenticity is currently underway by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the intense investigation continues. The drives were found within the secure area X Division which houses the vault that holds the Nuclear Emergency Search Team's materials… The area where the hard drives were found is being treated as a crime scene by the FBI. 'Once I was informed that the hard drives were missing, we immediately, along with the FBI, went to work,' [Energy] Secretary [Bill] Richardson said. 'I will continue to aggressively pursue this serious matter. There will be accountability and disciplinary actions regarding the Los Alamos incident.'"

A confused and alarming chronology surrounds the incident. The problem was first detected at Los Alamos on May 7, although lab Director John Browne was not notified until May 31, with the Deputy Director of Security at the facility, General Eugene Habiger, informed on June 2. It is hard to gauge the extent to which the huge New Mexico wildfire, which swept through portions of the laboratory in May, contributed to either the incident itself or this apparently inept response. On June 9, Department officials calculated fire damage to the lab to be running at around $300 million.

Speaking on NBC television on June 18, Secretary Richardson - facing down clamorous Republican calls to resign - stated boldly: "I believe there's been no espionage. It doesn't appear [that the hard drives] left the X Division… We will know what happened [shortly]…" On June 13, Richardson announced that former Republican Senator Howard Baker and former Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton had accepted an invitation, in the words of a Department statement, to "do a thorough investigation and assessment into the circumstances surrounding the security incident… and make the necessary recommendations for corrective measures. This investigation will be done expeditiously and will be conducted in a manner so as not to interfere with the FBI investigation. "

On June 14, Richardson declined an invitation to discuss the incident before an emergency joint hearing of the Senate Energy and Intelligence Committees - a decision roundly denounced by the chair of the hearing, Richard Shelby (Republican - Alabama): "Apparently, Secretary Richardson has decided there's something more important to do than account to the American people." The previous day, Shelby told NBC: "I think it's time we have put in place a Secretary of Energy who's going to be accountable to the American people, and I submit to you that Richardson is not that man." Shelby also criticised (June 14) the Baker-Hamilton investigation as "a political answer," arguing that it was no alternative to Richardson getting "his house in order." On June 15, Republican Presidential candidate George W. Bush told reporters: "Like all Americans, I'm deeply concerned about security lapses at Los Alamos… This is an Administration that promised no more security lapses and then there was another major security lapse…"

Reports: Fire may cost Los Alamos lab at least $300 million, Reuters, June 9; US nuclear weapons secrets missing 2 months, Reuters, June 12; Baker and Hamilton to investigate and assess Los Alamos security incident, US Department of Energy Press Release R-00-160, June 13; Richardson launches Los Alamos security probe, Reuters, June 13; US officials downplay spying in missing data case, Reuters, June 13; Richardson flayed over nuclear secrets loss, Reuters, June 14; Senators grill officials on nuclear secrets loss, Reuters, June 14; Administration blasted on missing hard drives, Reuters, June 14; US investigates missing hard drives at nuke lab, Reuters, June 15; Bush concerned over loss of secrets, Associated Press, June 15; Missing hard drives located at Los Alamos National Laboratory, US Department of Energy Press Release R-00-165, June 16; Los Alamos secrets found, Associated Press, June 16; Richardson rejects calls to resign, Associated Press, June 18.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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