Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer
Saturday, June 16, 2007
Officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory sent top-secret information about nuclear weapons through open e-mail networks, fueling concerns that security lapses, long an issue at the New Mexico lab, have not been solved by the recent installation of a UC-Bechtel management team.
The latest security breach was acknowledged Friday by Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman after it was revealed by two congressmen.
In a letter obtained by The Chronicle, Bodman assured Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, that the incident was immediately and fully investigated and that "appropriate measures have been taken to address the situation."
He gave no further details other than to blame the incident on "human error," and did not indicate when the breach occurred.
"An individual did in fact unintentionally transmit sensitive information through an unsecured e-mail system," Bodman said in the letter.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who chairs the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, called the latest security lapse a fresh example of Los Alamos' "mind-bogglingly poor track record" on security issues.
The scandal comes less than two years after the Energy Department awarded a consortium led by the University of California and Bechtel Corp. a new contract to run Los Alamos partly in order to prevent a repeat of numerous scandals involving the security of weapons information at the lab. The consortium operates under the name Los Alamos National Security LLC.
A similar managerial consortium -- one that is also dominated by UC and Bechtel -- was selected May 8 to manage the nation's other nuclear weapons design lab, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore.
According to the Associated Press, the breach at Los Alamos occurred when a consultant to the Los Alamos National Security board sent an e-mail containing highly classified, non-encrypted nuclear weapons information to several board members, who forwarded it to other members.
The news agency identified the consultant as Harold Smith. A spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nation's nuclear weapons labs, would not confirm that, but said a person had been issued an infraction. Two more infractions during the calendar year, she said, would lead to an unspecified personnel action.
Spokesmen Chris Harrington of UC and Jeff Berger of Los Alamos declined comment.
Lab critics jumped on the news of the latest security breach.
"The UC-Bechtel consortium at Los Alamos has taken what was a bad managerial situation and made it a lot worse," said Marylia Kelley, head of Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, which is based in Livermore. "As long as the United States continues to design and develop new nuclear weapons, some of that information can and will leak out. ... Better management cannot solve that deeper problem."
After the news leaked out, Dingell and Stupak wrote Bodman demanding to know why the breach wasn't reported to Congress for six months, even though an unidentified UC official informed the National Nuclear Security Administration of the breach on Jan. 19.
The timing delay raises the question of whether another scandal is being covered up -- in effect, the possibility that authorities dragged their feet for almost six months investigating the security breach so that UC and Bechtel could win their joint bid for the Livermore contract without suffering any taint of scandal. Dingell is well known for initiating congressional investigations into such federal malfeasance.
"Livermore laboratory has lost numerous keys to classified areas, and some of those keys have gone missing for many, many months before their loss was reported to upper management," Kelley said. "In another instance, one of the main laboratory gates was left unlocked over a holiday period -- and I'm not talking about a little gate, I'm talking about (a gate with) two lanes in and two lanes out."
E-mail Keay Davidson at firstname.lastname@example.org.