Apr 21, 2007

A Breach in Nuclear Security

New Mexico police got more than they bargained for last fall when they responded to a call about a domestic dispute in a trailer park near Los Alamos National Laboratory. Not only had they stumbled on paraphernalia for making the drug crystal meth; they also found thousands of pages of highly classified documents detailing the designs of U.S. nuclear weapons.

"We're taking it (the security breach) very seriously," said a spokesman for the Energy Department, which controls the lab, soon after the incident was made public. He added that Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman "was personally disturbed" by the matter. As well he ought to have been: New details obtained by TIME offer an even more disturbing picture of security at the nation's nuclear inner sanctum than the one outlined last year in a no-nonsense investigation by the Department's Inspector General. In fact, according to government documents, the woman who made off with the weapons designs was herself engaged in chronic illegal drug use and other serious security breaches that have never been made public. Documents also show that the DOE is investigating separate drug use by at least 35 other lab workers who received security clearances around the same time.

Investigators don't believe powers hostile to the U.S. have exploited this latest round of security lapses, although they cannot be certain. But clearly, those with access to the nation's nuclear secrets would be priority targets of foreign intelligence services, and problems such as drug-abuse could make them vulnerable to manipulation.

"After years of security breaches at Los Alamos — and this shocking episode in the trailer last fall — you have to wonder, when will it end?" says Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, an independent, non-partisan government watchdog group. "How can we continue to believe Department of Energy promises to end this brazen laxity in the handling of national security information?"

TIME has also obtained the report of a task force set up by Energy Secretary Bodman to examine some of the security issues in his department. Given the stakes involved in protecting nuclear secrets in a post 9/11 world, the report makes uncomfortable reading: It details not only more extensive drug use among staff at Los Alamos, but describes a systematic lack of accountability and weaknesses in the safeguards surrounding nuclear secrets.

Jessica Quintana, the woman who lived in the trailer, went to work as an archivist at Los Alamos at age 18, right out of high school. Accounts seen by TIME of the investigation that followed her arrest reveal that even before taking the job, she "self-reported acts of drug and alcohol abuse" in high school. By her own admission, she was using drugs (marijuana) and drinking while under age even during the period of her security screening. But after promising to stop taking drugs (although not alcohol), and signing a written pledge to submit to drug-testing, she received a clearance to handle some of America's most sensitive secrets. Despite the pledge, follow-up drug-tests were "never performed," a government document says, even as Quintana proceeded to commit multiple security violations with little supervision from the lab's security administrators.

It was only after several years on the job that she was caught with bomb designs in her trailer and fired. But the investigation reveals that Quintana had taken her cell phone into a vault filled with secret documents where she worked — another major security violation. She also had access to a high-speed classified printer, even though such access was "not required by her job," and used the device to run off hundreds of copies of classified documents that she also brought home. The young woman received inadequate supervision — government documents show that the security administrator responsible for Quintana's area was not around roughly half the time, because that person had "other duties." Quintana's lawyer, Stephen Aaron, told TIME that, on occasion, she would be locked into a secure vault to work until colleagues returned. "We hope that the lessons learned from this episode can be used to make the Lab more secure in the future," he added.

Quintana's motive for breaching the rules appears to have been benign: Falling behind on her work scanning paper copies of nuclear-weapons designs into a digital format, she would save highly-classified documents onto a "thumb drive" and then take the material home to work on after hours, she has said. The practice of inserting thumb drives was specifically forbidden by then DOE secretary Bill Richardson in 1999, but was apparently not uncommon at Los Alamos. Using thumb drives, and at least one wireless (WIFI) device that was improperly in the secure area, it would have been possible to transfer secret material from classified computers to non-classifed computers, a process known as "migration" . Since the discovery of Quintana's breach last fall, computer ports have been plugged with glue to prevent thumb drives being inserted.

Secretary Bodman's task force report shows, however, that security problems were not limited to Quintana or Los Alamos. Investigators examined more than 450 security clearances issued over 12 months beginning in June 2001, the period in which Quintana had been under review, and found two other cases in which clearances were granted to people with "indications of prior drug use within the month prior to the clearance being granted." A further 35 cases involved drug use within the year prior to requesting a security clearance.

Following its internal investigation, the DOE is proposing sweeping changes in security procedures and the issuance of clearances — and not just at Los Alamos. The report indicates that for the first time after years of security snafus, "Any proven or admitted drug involvement within the past 12 months" will be cause for "termination" of a security-clearance application. Other steps to tighten, centralize and refine security procedures and drug tests will also be implemented.

Secretary Bodman, who will testify Friday April 20 before a congressional oversight sub-committee on security issues, has already taken a number of steps of his own to deal with the problem. He not only commissioned the task force report, and reviewed the results of a DOE inspector general investigation, but in January fired the department's top official in charge of nuclear security in response to the latest Los Alamos and earlier incidents. As Bodman put it: "Unauthorized removal of the classified material from the Lab marks a significant breach of security protocol and of the public trust. Unfortunately, we cannot correct the errors of the past. But we will learn from this incident and we will do better."


Anonymous said...

If we can get rid of the scientists than
we will not problems like this.

Anonymous said...

Another case of hiring a bonehead kid of someone that already works at the Lab. Nepotism at its finest.

Anonymous said...

I think she was actually hired as a part-time admin by IM-1 under Kit Ruminer and then went on to archive work.

Anonymous said...

I think she was actually hired as a part-time admin by IM-1 under Kit Ruminer and then went on to archive work.

Anonymous said...

Now that this story has appeared in the press anyone wanna bet that it will appear in the stupid Daily Links announements Monday morning at 6:10 am? After all, our management is trying to keep us informed and reduce the amount of e-mail we get. Only after the fact. I get my news from this Blog! Thank you, Sirs!

Anonymous said...


If we can get rid of the boneheads who type and think like this than{sic} we will not {have} problems like this.

Is it a known fact that Jessica Quintana has a parent(s) working at the lab and/or whether she was hired or employed in any truly nepotistic way?

In a company town like Los Alamos, most people already living here will be related to someone already working at the lab. I don't think that really implies nepotism in any but the broadest stretch of boneheaded imagination.

There is a LOT more to be learned about this case and the press is pretty good about shooting their mouths with limited knowledge, often wrong.

The first round of reports strongly suggested (stated bluntly?) that Jessica Quintana was a "scientist" and that she was running a "meth lab" and that Justin Stone was essentially trading Meth for classified documents. How much of this has turned out to be literally true?

Others have suggested that our new random-drug-testing policy would have prevented her from doing what she (may have done?) did... sounds like she was already subject to random testing.

Wanna bet the folks who hired her couldn't possibly have had access to her clearance files and it was OPM (only) who missed/discounted her (recent?) drug use.

Anonymous said...

Is Dennis (IRM?) her father? Is Susan (her mother?) a friend of a lab lawyer named Prando? Could someone clue the rest of us in?

Anonymous said...

There must be some explanation why J. Quintana hasn't been prosecuted. Could it be that LANS isn't cooperating in the FBI investigation? Did LANS choose to not cooperate because the exact same mishandling of classified information was done by former LANS Deputy Director John Mitchell?

Anonymous said...

Quintana is uneducated and would have had no understanding of what the classified documents contained. Mitchell can't say the same.

Quintana probably didn't fully understand the rules concerning classified and its protection, especially if she was told the stuff she was working on was "old." Mitchell can't say the same.

Quintana got caught by pure accident (a drug raid) and because of where she lived. Mitchell's at-home classified was safe from police raids.

Anonymous said...

If you want a glimpse of how bad the nepotism is at Los Alamos take a gander at the number of relatives Rich Marquez has strategically placed at the Lab. A few years back he was at the center of the Glenn Walp/Steve Doran procurement fraud coverup efforts at the Lab. The head of the Audits and Assessments organization lost her job because of her involvement in the coverup. Never mind that Marquez was equally culpable, or that a cousin of his was strategically placed in the audit organization at the time. He not only kept his job, he's now Mickey's right hand man under LANS. Now isn't this a wonderful place to work?

Anonymous said...

ya I work with one of his hundreds of cousins.... NEVER say his name in the halls.... she hears all

Anonymous said...

Same goes for the Naranjo's.

Anonymous said...

anonymous said:

"Is it a known fact that Jessica Quintana has a parent(s) working at the lab and/or whether she was hired or employed in any truly nepotistic way?"

A very resounding YES. Her father works here. If you know someone that already works here you are pretty much a shoe-in even given the fact that a majority of those are clueless, have zero real world work experience and are just plain stupid and lazy.

Anonymous said...

"Jessica Quintana, ....even before taking the job, she "self-reported acts of drug and alcohol abuse" in high school. .....was using drugs (marijuana) and drinking while under age even during the period of her security screening."

How could the Laboratory have possibly granted this woman a clearance? Who is minding the store? Oh, never mind, it was OPM/NNSA that granted her a clearance. Now move along, nothing to see here.....I'm sure she INTENDED to eventually give up drugs ......All is well....

Anonymous said...

Finally, the Albuquerque Journal publishes a report that doesn't blame Los Alamos for everything:

"Tuesday, April 24, 2007

DOE Cleared Dozens of Drug Users

By John Arnold
Journal Staff Writer

The Department of Energy approved security clearances for more than three dozen workers over a 13-month period, despite evidence that those employees had used illegal drugs within the year prior to approval, a department review has found.

Three of those workers— including the former Los Alamos National Laboratory archivist at the center of the lab's most recent security breach— used drugs within a month of clearance approval, the review concluded.

DOE, through its National Nuclear Security Administration, oversees the nation's nuclear weapons labs, including LANL.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman commissioned a task force to examine the department's personnel security program after hundreds of classified LANL documents turned up during a drug investigation at the home of the former archivist, Jessica Quintana.

While the program's existing policies and guidelines are sound and have proven effective over time, they have not been applied consistently, states the task force's report, released publicly last week...."

Anonymous said...

Quintana admitted to using drugs and alcohol the same month she got her clearance and she was still in high school. Underage use of drugs and booze and they gave her a clearance anyway. Hmmmmm