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At labs, tighter security poses security threat

A new report says threat of prosecution makes Los Alamos scientists afraid to admit even minor security breaches.

By Francine Kiefer Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 26, 2000



WASHINGTON

For months, America's nuclear-weapons scientists have fretted that a vise-grip crackdown on security is impeding their ability to work and turning their labs and offices into a police zone.

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Now, in what might be a morale boost for the scientists, voices from outside the cloistered world of nuclear-weapons labs are giving credence to these complaints.

Two former congressmen, sizing up the current situation at the beleaguered Los Alamos National Weapons Laboratory in New Mexico, have concluded that tightened security - and especially the threat of criminal prosecution for minor lapses - pose a greater risk to national security than does the possible loss of nuclear secrets themselves.

Their report, prepared at the request of the US Department of Energy (DOE) and released yesterday, says fear of criminal prosecution is creating a climate in which scientists are afraid to admit to even minor security infractions and therefore refuse to cooperate with investigators.

"Once issues of management oversight give way to criminal investigation, and lab employees fear that committing a security error may expose them not just to management discipline but to prosecution and imprisonment, any hope that individuals will volunteer information that could reflect security lapses is annihilated," says the report by former Sen. Howard Baker (R) of Tennessee and Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana.

The report may have the indirect effect of forcing the DOE to consider whether recent concerns about US nuclear security have been overwrought. The DOE dispatched the bipartisan duo to Los Alamos - birthplace of the atomic bomb - after two computer hard drives containing sensitive information were lost last spring and then, mysteriously, found 16 days later at the lab.

Jim Danneskiold, a lab spokesman, says the Baker-Hamilton report reflects what employees have been saying: "If you believe that by reporting a security violation you're subject to a criminal investigation, then you'll think twice about reporting."

Uppermost in the minds of Los Alamos scientists is the example of former colleague Wen Ho Lee. Charged with 59 counts of mishandling nuclear secrets and held in solitary confinement for nine months, Mr. Lee this month went free after pleading guilty to just one felony count.

While Lee admitted downloading nuclear data from the lab's secure computer system onto portable tapes, several of the tapes are still missing, and the FBI is trying to determine their whereabouts. Meanwhile, the Justice Department and the FBI have launched internal probes to see if officials acted improperly in a case that so suddenly imploded.

Certainly that's the implication of the US district judge who handled Lee's case. He said federal authorities had "embarrassed the nation" by pushing for Lee's detention, then agreeing to a plea bargain that released him.

At the lab, a security crackdown has hurt morale among scientists and is making it more difficult to recruit top nuclear physicists and computer scientists. Although the lab has not seen a dropoff in the overall quantity or quality of applicants, it has seen "two disturbing" trends, says Danneskiold.

One is that the number Asians or Asian-Americans who accept "cream of the crop" positions has virtually dried up. Another is that the lab is seeing an increase in the number of overall people turning down slots.

The recruiting problem coincides with "a real exodus" from the lab's main computer-science group, because of more lucrative offers in the private sector. The Baker-Hamilton report says the hard-drive incident has had "a highly negative effect on the ability of [Los Alamos] and the other national laboratories to continue to do their work, while attracting and maintaining the ... personnel who are the lifeblood of the cutting-edge work...."

One scientist quoted in the report urged security officials to ramp down a few notches. "Offer an amnesty, with a reasonable [administrative] punishment, if you want the truth about the hard drives."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society