Nuclear Secrets Missing at Los Alamos Lab

By Seper, Jerry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Secrets Missing at Los Alamos Lab


Seper, Jerry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


U.S. nuclear secrets stored in locked containers in a secure vault at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico are missing, prompting an FBI and Energy Department investigation into what lab officials called "an extremely serious matter."

Highly classified information stored on two hard drives in the lab's "X Division," where nuclear weapons are designed, were missing during a June 1 search after a forest fire threatened the facility, said John Browne, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in a statement yesterday.

"This is an extremely serious matter, and we are taking swift action to deal with it," Mr. Browne said, although he declined to elaborate.

The missing hard drives, each about the size of a deck of cards, are believed to contain weapons data used by the government's Nuclear Emergency Search Team, which responds to nuclear accidents and terrorist threats. In addition to U.S. secrets, the hard drives also are said to contain information on Russian nuclear weapons programs.

Ed Curran, head of the Energy Department's Office of Counterintelligence, said in a separate statement there was "no evidence" to suggest "at this point" that espionage was involved, but he also declined to give details.

FBI spokesman Steven Berry yesterday confirmed only that agents in Albuquerque were conducting a "criminal inquiry" into the missing files, in conjunction with Energy Department officials.

The disappearance of the sensitive files was first reported by the New York Times yesterday on its Web site, noting that the hard drives were missing when investigators searched for them after the fire. The "brush-clearing" blaze, set by the National Park Service, burned 47,000 forest acres, destroyed 405 homes, caused several days of evacuation for 25,000 area residents and created an estimated $150 million cleanup bill for the Los Alamos laboratory.

The fire forced thousands to evacuate a nearby town as well as the Los Alamos facility.

A search of the facility by the Energy Department's new security chief, Eugene Habiger, shortly after the files were discovered to be missing turned up no information on how they disappeared or where they had gone, department officials said.

"If the inquiry reveals that individuals did not fulfill their responsibilities with respect to this matter, they will face certain and appropriate disciplinary actions," Mr. Browne said in his statement.

Los Alamos lab officials late in the evening of May 7 sought to secure the nuclear data from possible harm as wildfires threatened the laboratory complex, but found them missing from their containers in the vault. Three days later, Los Alamos was evacuated because of the fire threat and did not resume significant operation until May 22.

The fire threat and evacuation interrupted the search, but after May 22 Los Alamos officials began "an intensive search" for the material. Still, they did not report it missing for 10 days. Mr. Habiger said the delay in reporting would be looked into as part of the investigation, but that security was maintained during the entire period of the fire threat.

On June 2, Mr. Curran brought in the FBI, and a week ago 22 FBI agents and 12 DOE investigators, led by Mr. Habiger, flew to Los Alamos for an intensive search for the material and investigate its disappearance. But officials still don't know what happened to the two drives.

The lab, managed by the University of California, said in a statement: "Officials are conducting an exhaustive search of computers, safes, containers and vaults and have interviewed all staff members who had access to the vault where the media (nuclear materials) were stored."

Mr. Curran said the Nuclear Emergency Search Team had used the material only a week before it was discovered missing as part of an exercise at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and it has not been ruled out that the material was misplaced at that time.

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