Report warned of cyber attacks on nuclear labs
May 3, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A classified report from U.S. intelligence agencies warned the Clinton administration in November that computer systems at national nuclear weapons labs were vulnerable to cyber attacks, a senior administration official told CNN on Sunday.
Yet a Taiwan-born researcher, suspected of downloading sensitive files while working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, was able to keep high-level security clearance until his firing in March.
Wen Ho Lee reportedly took information from a secure computer database at the laboratory and transferred it to a less secure system, which would have been accessible from outside the lab.
The agencies conducted the threat assessment as a result of a directive issued in February 1998 by President Clinton, after allegations that China obtained U.S. nuclear secrets by penetrating the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
A senior U.S. lawmaker predicted Sunday that there would be more "revelations" concerning suspected nuclear espionage by China.
"The damage was bad, a lot worse than people ever imagined," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama).
"I'm afraid they have a lot more than we ever dreamed," said Shelby, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on "Fox News Sunday."
The November report documents more than 200 attempts to infiltrate non-secure computer systems at the nuclear laboratories.
But nuclear laboratories are not the only vulnerable government facilities. A number of federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, are routinely attacked by hackers.
The threat assessment warned that China, Russia and India could seek U.S. nuclear secrets. A number of government investigations warned various administrations dating back to President Bush about lax security at the labs.
One recent General Accounting Office report raised concerns about a U.S. overseas visitor program that allowed hundreds of visits without background checks.
Last October, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson initiated a number of measures to improve security at the nuclear labs.
In mid-March of this year, he launched a program to improve cyber security. Later in the month, Richardson learned of the cyber spying allegations against Lee.
According to Richardson, the information in question related to simulated testing for nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons design.
The FBI, which had been investigating Lee since 1996, had attempted without success to have the Justice Department approve a court-authorized wire tap or search warrant.
Justice officials had questioned whether there was enough evidence to pursue a wire tap or search warrant.
Richardson said he shut down computer work at the labs for two weeks beginning April 2 of this year.
Lee agreed to allow the FBI and Energy Department to check his computer files. He has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime.
He was fired in March from his Los Alamos post for allegedly failing to inform Energy officials about contacts with China, and allegedly failing to safeguard classified materials.
Shelby said his committee would soon focus on how the Justice Department and the FBI dealt with Lee, who reportedly came to the attention of investigators in 1994.
"There is a lot of blame to go around, and I think it's serious," Shelby said.
Lawmakers including Shelby have questioned why so many warnings seemed to go unheeded, and why it took so long to zero in on Lee's alleged activities.
"It looks to me like this is a botched investigation by the FBI, and I think there is some culpability with the Justice Department," Shelby said. "I think the Justice Department treated this as an ordinary case when it should have been an extraordinary case."
Justice officials were not available for response.
Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas and Reuters contributed to this report.
Sources: FBI recommends charges against Los Alamos scientist
Los Alamos Research Library
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