Investigators into a potentially devastating security breach at the US nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos are considering the possibility that visiting British atomic experts made off with two sensitive computer disks that have been missing since early July.
That diplomatically explosive scenario was raised at a recent closed- door congressional hearing in Washington, where lawmakers have threatened scientists working at the lab with dismissal or even criminal prosecution for what they see as an inexcusable disregard for security procedures.
James Greenwood, a Republican member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, asked the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) directly whether "anyone from the UK was able to physically get their hands on these Zip drives".
The NNSA chief, Linton Brooks, did not immediately discount the possibility, according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by the Albuquerque Journal. Instead he answered: "I don't want to seem unresponsive, but I would be more comfortable if we could have this discussion in a different setting."
Mr Brooks did reveal, however, that 15 top-secret disks were prepared in early June for a meeting with a British delegation, and that two of these disks later went missing. Just 11 Los Alamos scientists had access to these disks; all 11 have denied any wrong- doing.
Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project was hatched 60 years ago, has been in a state of lockdown for the past week, with all research projects halted and employees in a state of fear bordering on panic.
The head of Los Alamos, retired admiral Pete Nanos, has publicly questioned the lab's future and threatened scientists with polygraph tests and mass dismissals.
Government critics at Los Alamos claim that Washington is looking for an excuse to purge the lab of scientists wedded to the notion of safeguarding the stockpile of nuclear weapons rather than adding to them. The Bush administration has made little secret of its desire to resume nuclear weapons production for the first time in 15 years to usher in a new generation of "mini-nukes" and atomic bunker- buster bombs for first-strike use.
The Energy Department, which oversees the lab, has announced it will consider open bids when its latest management contract with the University of California runs out next year. …