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Missing nuclear secrets found behind Los Alamos copy machine

June 16, 2000
Web posted at: 10:18 p.m. EDT (0218 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two missing computer hard drives containing sensitive nuclear weapons data from the Los Alamos National Laboratory have been recovered, federal authorities announced Friday.


The drives were found behind a copy machine in a secure area of the laboratory that had previously been searched, sources told CNN.

It was not known whether the disks ever left the building. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said investigators are looking into "inconsistencies" surrounding the whereabouts of the device.

The FBI has examined the drives for fingerprints and they were to be examined electronically on Saturday to determine absolutely whether they are those that are missing, and whether they had been tampered with or the contents copied, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Energy Department's admission that the two disks were missing early this week prompted a new round of congressional hearings into security at the nation's top nuclear laboratory, where the first atomic bomb was completed in 1945.

Despite their safe recovery, Richardson said Friday afternoon he would continue an investigation into the matter, and he promised disciplinary action would result. Investigators are treating the area where the drives were found as a crime scene, and Richardson said "their authenticity" was still being evaluated.

The drives were found in the so-called "X Division," a closely guarded section of the Los Alamos facility. They contained details of how to dismantle numerous nuclear weapons from U.S. and other nations' arsenals. The information is used by the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST), which is trained to respond to nuclear accidents or terrorism.

The drives have been missing since at least May 7, when Los Alamos employees prepared to evacuate the facility due to wildfires in the surrounding New Mexico countryside.

The FBI and Energy Department conducted the investigation into their disappearance, and NEST members at Los Alamos have been given polygraph tests.

According to Justice Department sources, the FBI had 58 agents on-scene at Los Alamos on Friday, and the agency was treating the area in which the disks were located as a crime scene. The disks were to be checked later Friday through a series of electronic and forensics tests to determine if they had in any way been compromised.

The sources said they had no assurances that the disks had not been taken off laboratory premises in the time they were missing.

President Bill Clinton said earlier Friday that it remains "not clear" whether national security has been jeopardized by the drives' absence. Clinton said it is important "to get to the bottom" of what happened.

"It's a serious issue, and I think what we ought to do is see the investigation through and see where the facts lead us," he said during an interview on NBC's "Today Show."

In addition to the FBI/Energy probe, former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, a Republican, and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, are taking an "independent look" at the issue.

"We need to do what we can to find out what happened, whether there was a security breach and if so, how we can change it so that it will never happen again," Clinton said.

The revelations of missing nuclear secrets prompted new hearings on security procedures at Los Alamos in both houses of Congress this week. Richardson, whose department has oversight of the laboratory, has come in for particularly harsh criticism -- especially after he skipped a Senate hearing into the matter Wednesday.

Richardson said he would appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee next week, when "we will have more answers" about the missing data.

The Los Alamos facility is operating by the University of California. Several members of the House Commerce Committee sent Richardson a letter Friday calling for the department to terminate the lab's operating contract with the university.

The letter noted that "virtually every loss of weapons information at Los Alamos has involved lab employees," and that the employees were most likely responsible for the misplaced hard drives.

"It is time for the department to take charge of the Los Alamos National Laboratory," the members wrote. "We believe that it is no longer in the 'best interests of the government' to continue with the University of California as the management and operating contractor."

CNN's Dana Bash, John King and Terry Frieden contributed to this report.




Friday, June 16, 2000


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