Los Alamos National Lab improves information security

Los Alamos National Laboratory acknowledged problems involving security of classified data and has taken several steps to improve processes, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office released Monday. The laboratory, which manages numerous nuclear facilities and operations, saw a reduction in the number of reported security incidents from a five-year high of 18 in 2005 to four in 2007.

The laboratory, which is managed by a consortium of contractors called Los Alamos National Security, handles plutonium, uranium and tritium processing; research and development operations with special nuclear material, high-energy radiography; radiation measurement; packaging of nuclear materials; and radioactive and hazardous waste management. The government awarded the management contract to the consortium in June 2006, after a series of high-profile security incidents involving the possible exposure of classified information and concerns over workplace safety. The House Energy and Water Development Subcommittee asked GAO to provide an update on security, safety and management problems at the lab.

"This was not a full-blown audit," said a GAO spokesman, who requested anonymity. "The idea was to get something to the committee to address some questions, based on existing studies, or work done by the [Energy Department] inspector general."

GAO analyzed data from the lab's Office of Safeguards and Security and the Incident Tracking and Analysis Capability database - Energy's primary repository for monitoring security incidents. According to the report, 57 security incidents involving the compromise or potential compromise of classified information were reported between Oct. 1, 2002 and June 30, 2007. Of those, 37 posed the most serious threat to national security. In one example, nine classified removable electronic media items, including data disks, could not be accounted for after relocation to a different on-site facility. Energy concluded that these items were likely destroyed. In another example, a law enforcement search of a subcontractor's home in Los Alamos, N.M., recovered documents and a USB thumb drive containing classified information removed from a highly classified facility at the lab.

In addition, nine incidents involved the confirmed or suspected unauthorized disclosure of secret information, which Energy determined posed a significant threat to U.S. national security interests, and 11 incidents involved the confirmed or suspected unauthorized disclosure of confidential information, which posed threats to the department's security interests.

According to the report, lab contractors have taken a number of steps to improve information security. An estimated 1.4 million legacy classified documents were destroyed, for example, and the number of electronic classified items reduced from 87,000 to 4,472. They've also reduced the number of vaults and vault-type rooms used for holding classified data from 142 to 114, and consolidated classified material and classified processing operations into a supervault-type room.

"It's a problem they're aware of and trying to take steps to remediate long-standing issues," the GAO spokesman said.

Lab representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.

In response to the report, lab officials noted that the number of security incidents that compromised or potentially compromised classified information had declined from 18 in 2005 to five in 2006 and four in 2007. The number of reported incidents rose prior to 2005, increasing from 14 in 2003 to 16 in 2004.

"In our view, this short period of time is not sufficient to provide a basis for meaningful trend analysis," Gene Aloise, GAO's director of Natural Resources and Environment, said in the report. "Consequently, it is too soon to tell if this decline in security incidents is more than temporary."

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