Los Alamos Loses Top-Secret Information, Again!

Los Alamos Loses Top-Secret Information, Again!
L. Taylor - June 20, 2000

Event Summary

Don't you hate it when your hard drives containing top-secret Nuclear Secrets disappear? Another security compromise occurred at Los Alamos National Laboratories last month when two hard drives containing top-secret nuclear information disappeared from a 10 x 20 foot vault. The compromise occurred in the "X-Division" where nuclear weapons are designed. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Los Alamos is one of 28 Department of Energy Laboratories within the United States. With an annual budget of $1.2million, and over 9,000 staff, Los Alamos is the largest employer in Northern New Mexico.

For more than 50 years, Los Alamos National Laboratory's primary mission has been to apply science and technology to problems of national security. According to Los Alamos Director John C. Browne, reducing global nuclear danger is one of the laboratory's focus areas. The Department of Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, was roasted by Senate Republications when he failed to appear at a joint hearing of the Senate Intelligence and Energy committees.

Los Alamos National Laboratory was founded in the midst of WWII as a response to the fear that Adolf Hitler would make nefarious use of the Nazi German discovery of fission which occurred in 1938. In March of 1943, a small group of scientists, whose mission was to find a way to end WWII, started collaborating at the Ranch School for Boys in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Figure 1. Fuller Lodge, Ranch School for Boys

Market Impact

The potential impact as a result of this compromise of National Security is enormous. According to Dr. Browne, the system for accounting for users of secret documents was ended in 1993. Dr. Browne verified that the hard drives contained a variety of U.S. and foreign nuclear weapon designs, and conceded that there was no audit trail of who might have used them last. Though the hard drives disappeared sometime before May 7, Dr. Browne first learned of the compromise on May 31st.

Figure 2. John C. Browne, Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory

DOE secretary Richardson is calling for disciplinary action and accountability. So far, six employees of Los Alamos have been relieved of their duties. Using lie detector tests, the FBI is investigating an elite team of nuclear-weapons scientists and engineers to help determine why and how the two hard drives disappeared.

In April the computer network at the DOE's headquarters was audited for security vulnerabilities. The audit revealed numerous network weaknesses, the ability to be penetrated, and that even the security of closely guarded systems was vulnerable to compromise. The department's director of security and emergency, Eugene Habigier has blamed Congress for not giving the department the extra $28million it requested last year. In 1998, an audit of DOE networks discovered hundreds of sensitive agency information files available from the Internet.

In 1998, Los Alamos began a program called the Threat Reduction Directorate (TRD). TRD was supposed to respond to and head-off threats posed by nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction.

In a presentation made by the DOE Safeguard systems Group earlier this year, it was documented that both "outsiders" and "insiders" remained a threat.


It is apparent that Los Alamos National Laboratories is no longer capable of carrying out their mission to enhance the security of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials worldwide. This laboratory, which had been originally commissioned to preserve the earth through advancements in science and technology, may in fact be unknowingly sabotaging their own mission. Had proper due diligence been taken, the loss of two hard drives would not pose that much of a threat if the information had been appropriately encrypted.

The security mistakes that are being made at Los Alamos are sloppy and unacceptable. Directors of Federal Agencies need to start being held accountable for National Security, or suffer extensive consequences -loss of funding, loss of employment, and possible criminal investigations.

Figure 3. The mission of enhancing Global Nuclear Security at Los Alamos has backfired.

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