The difficulty of keeping secrets in modern labs

At Los Alamos National Laboratory, the line between classified and unclassified material gets crossed every day. Scientists who study the integrity of America's nuclear stockpile may also be involved in medical research of brain waves. Satellites meant to identify illegal underground nuclear tests can also be used to study lightning storms.

It's a lab where as many as half of all new hires come from foreign countries and where the free exchange of ideas among some of the world's greatest thinkers is considered a part - a necessary part - of the scientific process.

Given all that, the question arising more and more pointedly from here to Washington is: Can any secret really be safe in this environment?

The scientists here who work with the arcane and sensitive insist it is not difficult to understand the difference between what's secret and what's not - or to keep them separate. But they acknowledge that even the tightest security will do little stop an insider who is determined to pass on "black" information.

"If you are in a position of trust, with all the computer tools of modern society at your disposal, there's a lot you can do to betray that trust," says Stanley Busboom, director of security at Los Alamos. "A determined insider who is a US citizen can do a lot of damage. We could only hope to make that more difficult, and to catch them doing it."

What does seem certain is that the culture of the nation's weapons laboratories will be changing in the wake of the spy scandal whirling around Wen Ho Lee. Already, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has said he wants to appoint a new "security czar" to oversee the labs and report directly to him. Secretary Richardson has also said he plans to create one $800 million security budget for various labs and installations.

Yet critics - including several members of Congress - say different reforms are needed as well. Some suggest banning foreign scientists. Others suggest such stringent security measures that scientists may end up dreaming in red, white, and blue.

Genesis of the controversy

This has all come about because of the investigation into the activities of Mr. Lee. Investigators say Lee shared nuclear weapons designs for the top-secret W-88 program during two trips to mainland China in the 1980s. In addition, they say he downloaded the nuclear codes for the entire US nuclear arsenal onto a unclassified computer network, which could have made them available for any number of outsiders.

Lee has never formally been charged, and he denies the accusations, saying that he has in fact cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation throughout the 1980s to root out potential Chinese spies at Los Alamos.

If the charges prove to be true, though, experts say they would be the worst security breach in US history.

But ask nuclear scientist Albert Migliori if he thinks Los Alamos National Laboratory is a soft target for espionage, and he just might go ballistic.

"There is no question in my mind what is sensitive information and what is not," says Dr. Migliori, giving a visitor a tour of a laboratory full of purring computers. "There is a moral obligation for keeping these secrets and making sure these weapons are robust. This is too dangerous to let anyone know what we know."

John Shaner, director of the Center for International Security Affairs at Los Alamos, says keeping secrets is much easier than it sounds. "I would say that the average Los Alamos staffer has a clearer idea of classified material than the average congressional staffer," he says, with the hint of a smile under his gray mustache. As for foreign visitors, he has had many, and "they don't just wander the halls, you can count on that. Those people have to be escorted even to the bathroom."

Indeed, most scientists say there is no real gray area in the black-and-white world of classified and unclassified science.

"Basic science is for the most part unclassified," says Geoff Reeves, a space scientist at Los Alamos. "How that knowledge gets applied is where you get into the classified realm." For example, the Forte satellite that his group developed to identify illegal nuclear tests is also capable of monitoring electrical storms, and is helping scientists create models for weather change. All of the scientists on the project know when they can talk about the basic principles, and when they have to stop their conversation and move "behind the fence," to discuss its more classified aspects.

But Dr. Reeves and others say that taking apart that collaborative environment would destroy the purpose of Los Alamos and other labs. "It's really a social enterprise," says Reeves. "You remember Sir Isaac Newton, and the apple and gravity? It wasn't until years later [when] people began incorporating that idea into their own research that it became important. Einstein didn't sit alone in his office saying, 'E equals mc ... squared!' "

For similar reasons, most scientists here fret that banning foreign-born scientists, as Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama suggests, will end up hurting the lab's performance without actually improving its security. After all, such a ban wouldn't have applied to Lee, a US citizen. In addition, having foreign scientists from nuclear states can have a deterrent effect as well, since these scientists can tell their leaders just how advanced and reliable US nuclear arms are.

"Ironically, deterrence works less if an adversary can't see the fruits of our work," says John Martz, a manager for enhanced surveillance of the nuclear-weapons program. In the old days, deterrence was just one earth-shaking nuclear test away. Today, where nuclear tests have been banned, scientists must verify the reliability of weapons through subtle computer models and precise measurements of how plutonium cores deteriorate over time. "Ultimately, having foreign nationals here can be a deterrent. They should not doubt the first-class nature of our research."

Fodder for critics

That said, Los Alamos does have its share of critics, including a fair number of former employees.

Take Chris Mechels, a computer-security specialist who retired from Los Alamos in 1994 after stints with the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Cray Computer Co.

"I used to work with the NSA and the CIA - I know what security looks like," says Mr. Mechels, who now lives 45 minutes away in Santa Fe. "When I got to Los Alamos [in the early 1980s], I couldn't believe it."

He recalls walking into classified meeting, such as the film of a secret nuclear device being tested. "We had popcorn, sodas. It was very pleasant," he says. "But it was troubling that they didn't operate on a need-to-know basis."

Los Alamos security director Busboom discounts this criticism, noting that today's classified computers have no electronic link with the computers in unclassified areas. In addition, all workers entering a classified area must have not only a picture ID, but also have their palms identified by a computer.

The lab is also revamping its counterintelligence efforts, including new background checks and psychological profiles of classified employees.

'It's absolutely demoralizing'

But in the meantime, Dr. Migliori says the current media scrutiny is causing some top scientists to start looking for other jobs. "It's absolutely demoralizing," he says. "It is horrible to see people making choices on whether to leave."

And you won't hear Migliori offer any condolences for Lee. "I have no sympathy for this guy, if he gave away US secrets. Even if he did it accidentally, this is a bad man," says Migliori, leaning back in his chair. "But if a US citizen gives away secrets willingly, there's nothing you can do."

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