Political flames heat up Los Alamos

There is a paranoid streak running through our country that is occasionally exploited by politicians in favor of red hunts, spy hunts, and hunts for people with "slanty eyes." That has assumed new dimensions in the computer age, when a medium for the swift dissemination of information has created real and mind-boggling problems in protecting information.

The Pentagon has worked for years to guard against an attack on the computer systems that will manage the next war. Nuclear scientists and even a former CIA director have had to be reminded about the no-nos of downloading classified information into unclassified computers. The hard drives that went missing at the Los Alamos National Laboratory contained information that would have filled thousands of paper pages - too easy to lose, misplace, or steal.

Before this latest security flap, there was the case of Wen Ho Lee, indicted last December and held, often in shackles, for downloading secret information, but with no evidence yet produced that he did anything wrong with that information. And Steven Younger, head of the Los Alamos nuclear weapons program, instrumental in Dr. Lee's arrest, has now himself been placed on leave in the investigation of the hard drive episode.

This strange disappearance and reappearance shouldn't be a partisan matter. In 1997, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary proposed tighter security in what was called the "High Fences" initiative. Most of it was knocked down by the Pentagon as too expensive. Her successor, Bill Richardson, has done some upgrading of security at Los Alamos, adopting 48 recommendations of a counterintelligence expert. But he says it's difficult to change the security culture of scientists whose very creativity tends to resist secrecy.

There's a real problem here that requires sensitive consideration because the computer age will generate more, not fewer, problems of security and privacy. But playing politics will not bring us closer to a solution.

Last March, Republicans seized on the case of Lee to suggest a Chinese espionage conspiracy that had been ignored by the Clinton administration. Now Gov. Jeb Bush says, from the stump in Florida, that the Clinton administration is to blame for "chaos and confusion" at Los Alamos. Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama and Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida, chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, have called for Mr. Richardson's resignation.

Do these chairmen, with all their access to secret briefings, really believe that Richardson's resignation would improve anything? It may be just too tempting in election year to have a security scandal to lay on President Bill Clinton and, by implication, Vice President Al Gore.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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