Intelligence: June 17, 2000

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The loss of two computer hard disks loaded with secret data on US and Russian/Soviet nuclear weapons from the Los Alamos National Laboratory has proven to be a major embarrassment for the Clinton Administration. While there are rampant theories on the subject, here is what is known. On 7 April, a laboratory team inspected the hard drives. This is the last time anyone can positively state that they were present. The hard drives contained data on US and Russian nuclear warheads, and would have been used in an emergency by a US nuclear response team if it had to disarm a stolen or captured bomb. When the huge forest fire broke out on 4 May, the Energy Department surveyed the threat. [There seems little chance that the fires were set to cover up the cover up of an espionage fiasco. The fire was too unpredictable and may have, in fact, caused the discovery of an earlier theft.] By 7 May, a Nuclear Emergency Response Team (NEST Team) had been tasked to get the hard disks out of the vault and take them to a secure area. This team discovered that the hard disks were missing, but did not report this to their superiors, a major violation of security procedures (which require a report within eight hours). The facility was evacuated by 8 May, with only security guard teams remaining until the laboratory reopened on 22 May. The NEST Team, which still had not reported the missing hard disks, launched an intensive search for them, and finally reported them missing on 31 May. The FBI was called in on 2 June and had not found them when the story broke in the media on 12 June. The Energy Department moved to contain the scandal, although no one felt it likely that the hard disks were going to be found safe. Some laboratory activities were closed down, and seven employees of the Los Alamos Lab were suspended (with pay). A commission led by two former congressmen was formed to look into the case. The FBI has begun lie detector tests for the 26 employees who had been allowed unescorted access to the vault. Energy Secretary Richardson expressed "outrage" (as he had several times in the past over security lapses) and promised to "get to the bottom of this" even though he had failed to do so in the Wen Ho Lee case. Richardson had assured Congress that security had been tightened after the Lee affair. The Senate approved (also on 14 June) the appointment of General John Gordon (currently the deputy head of the CIA) to head up the new semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration.--Stephen V Cole


 


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