Behind the political thrust-and-parry over accountability at the nation's nuclear labs is a fundamental problem that has confounded the government since the dawn of the Atomic Age: the clash between science and security.
The US government has tried for 50 years to balance the two sides, giving scientists as much latitude as possible to freely exchange ideas - but also setting up a cloistered environment to ensure that no nuclear-weapons secrets are released.
But the recent lost-and-found episode over computer hard drives at Los Alamos National Laboratory shows the difficulty of keeping these competing interests in balance.
While Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said yesterday that the recovered hard drives have so far yielded no evidence of espionage, the incident has again touched off a war of words between those who say the labs' protocols threaten national security and those who say lab constrictions are so tight that increasingly fewer scientists are willing to work there.
Mr. Richardson, who oversees the labs, has described the problem as "human" in nature. While he made material and procedural changes at the labs, he says he failed to take into account that "the lab culture needs more time to be changed."
Now under intense pressure from Republicans to resign, Richardson testified yesterday before an incensed Senate Armed Services Committee and vigorously defended more than 21 security measures he's taken and outlined new ones. But it's not clear if the measures, which include logging in and out any people and material from the lab's vaults, will solve the enduring cultural divide.
"You cannot prevent the possibility of human error, misjudgment, or carelessness," says Rick Malaspina, spokesman for the president of the University of California, which manages Los Alamos for the government. The tension between science and security, he adds, "is endemic."
The culture clash goes back more than 50 years to the top-secret Manhattan Project, which hatched the atom bomb. The military wanted to control the scientists, masking how their pieces of the work fit into the whole. The Pentagon even planted microphones in scientists' homes.
But the scientists resisted. Richard Feynman, a Nobel physicist, took pleasure in circumventing security controls. Once, he left the complex through a guarded gate and returned through a hole in a fence - repeating the route until a guard finally noticed.
Eventually, secrets were passed to the Russians. A key source was Klaus Fuchs, a German scientist who worked at Los Alamos. But Edward Teller, director emeritus of the Lawrence Livermore lab, says that exchange of information is essential, despite the risks.
"Openness and international cooperation are very old traditions," says Dr. Teller.
That sentiment persists in the labs today. When Richardson called for lie-detector tests last year, half the people in the lab's X Division signed a petition opposing them.
X Division is the restricted weapons-design center where the hard drives, said to contain sensitive information on US and foreign nuclear weapons, were stored. Discovered on May 7 to be missing, the hard drives were found last week behind a copying machine. X Division was also the workplace of Wen Ho Lee, the scientist now awaiting trial for allegedly mishandled lab secrets.
As a result of the protest over polygraphs, the Energy Department (DOE) reduced the number of people required to take them - but still pushed the policy through. The lie-detector tests are now playing a key role in the FBI's investigation.
According to news reports, three scientists who helped write the data on the drives and who have access to the vault where both were kept, gave conflicting answers in interviews and indicated deception on polygraph tests. One scientist is refusing to cooperate.
In testimony yesterday, Richardson said the FBI now believes that the drives disappeared March 28. The bureau has authenticated the drives, which have "latent fingerprints" on them. Meanwhile, a grand jury is now examining issues related to this criminal investigation.
According to news reports, investigators believe that one person took or misplaced the drives, and replaced them with the help of colleagues after the FBI investigation began. They do not believe espionage is involved.
Even so, the breech indicates that even the recent security improvements - increasing the number of guards at the lab by one-third, new alarm and employee-recognition systems, and the securing of computers - have not been enough.
In response to this latest incident, the lab will now track "encyclopedic" material, such as the hard drives, and encrypt it. The lab has already changed the locks on the vaults and cut the number of people with access to them.
John Browne, director of the Los Alamos lab, said yesterday he "rejects the notion" of "irreconcilable conflict between scientific excellence and effective security."
Another Los Alamos official says most scientists have accepted the new security measures, but admits a small percentage use the restrictions as "an excuse" to not deliver their work.
One way the lab is dealing with resistance is through a help desk to walk scientists through security challenges. But perhaps the most effective way to change attitudes is discipline - firings, forced resignations, and forced leave, he says. DOE officials insist firings will occur after investigators learn who was at fault.
But the security crackdown, as well as the arrest last year of Mr. Lee, are having a negative side effect: difficulty recruiting and retaining top-notch scientists. Scientists are concerned about restrictions on their ability to work, and about possible racial discrimination, says T.J. Glauthier, a DOE deputy secretary.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society