Los Alamos praised for response to potential security threat
The response of officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory to a recent potential security lapse marks an improvement over the way the nuclear research facility has handled similar incidents in the past, a watchdog group said Thursday.
After discovering ten missing computer disks during routine inventories conducted in late November and early December, officials at the New Mexico nuclear lab notified the Energy Department and the University of California, which runs the facility for Energy. Lab investigators interviewed workers who had handled the disks and carefully reviewed the files' contents.
Los Alamos has been under increased scrutiny since the fall of 2002, when whistleblowers Glenn Walp and Steve Doran exposed widespread theft, fraud and mismanagement at the lab. The lab initially fired the two investigators. But several months later, the University of California rehired them as security consultants. Walp left his position in the late summer, after reaching a $930,000 legal settlement with the university.
Walp and Doran's disclosures touched off a series of congressional hearings, inspector general investigations and a management shakeup at Los Alamos. According to Beth Daley, a spokeswoman for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonprofit watchdog group, the whistleblowers helped draw attention to critical flaws in the lab's response to potential security breaches.
In the past, Los Alamos has failed to inform the Energy Department promptly when security lapses occurred, Daley said. The lab also lacked procedures for interviewing employees who had come in contact with missing computer disks, she explained.
"It's certainly true that on the face of it, they're handling [this] situation better," Daley said. But she added that the recent incident underscores a more serious problem: the computer disks should not have gone missing in the first place.
A preliminary investigation revealed that the 10 missing disks did not contain information likely to jeopardize national security, according to a statement issued by Los Alamos. The statement detailed steps the lab took to track down all 10 disks, some of which were likely destroyed. But regardless of whether the lapse actually created a substantial security risk, Los Alamos needs better protections for classified information, said Peter Nanos, the lab's director.
"This situation is totally unacceptable," he said. "Security is one of our most important jobs. Obviously we now must look deeper into the control of all sensitive information and solve these problems."
The University of California is taking "aggressive action to address this issue," said Chris Harrington, a spokesman. The university ordered a "stand down" in response to the latest incident, and requested a "laboratory-wide review of computer media security." A "stand down" is a new type of safety precaution where the lab temporarily prevents the workers responsible for the missing disks from working with classified information that could be removed from the lab, and sends them to retraining.
Los Alamos is moving toward a "media-less" environment, where classified information is not stored on disks or other equipment that could be removed from the lab, Harrington said. Daley said this is a step in the right direction, and also praised Los Alamos for admitting publicly that it cannot account for the computer disks.
POGO investigators pointed to several other recent instances where Los Alamos has lost computers or disks. Walp and Doran discovered more than 200 missing computers in Nov. 2002. Some of them contained classified information, they claimed. The lab also lost electronic files in Jan. 2002 and Jan. 2003, according to POGO.
"This is like a re-run of an old movie," said Peter Stockton, a POGO investigator. "Their failure to protect classified information continues when very simple solutions have been recognized for years."
The Energy Department did not respond to a call for comment on the latest incident at Los Alamos. In April 2003, the department placed the contract to run the nuclear facility up for bids for the first time since the lab opened 60 years ago, partly because of "the widespread nature of the problems uncovered at Los Alamos" under the University of California's watch. The university's contract to run the lab expires in 2005.