The Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation’s most important nuclear weapons lab, lost another hard disk drive filled with classified information, once again throwing a spotlight on lab officials who have been trying to re-emerge from years of scandals and mismangement.
The latest episode came to light Thursday, after Los Alamos admitted that, since a Monday inventory check, its custodians hadn’t been able to find a “classified removable electronic media,” or CREM — disks and drives inscribed with the country’s secrets.
A Los Alamos press release played down the incident, calling it “a single accounting discrepancy (that) in no way constitutes a compromise of national security.” Los Alamos has tens of thousands of removable hard drives, discs and memory sticks. When one can’t be found, it’s usually because of something innocent, like “administrative errors” or outdated machinery.
But lab critics were hearing none of it.
“Can’t they ever get anything right?” said Los Alamos security consultant-turned-whistleblower Glenn Walp. “They take the same old corporate line: ‘It’s not us, it’s the system.’ How refreshing it would be if someone at that place would have the backbone to admit they screwed up.”
Computer security has been particularly problematic for the lab. In 2001, two missing hard drives packed with nuclear weapon designs were found behind a Los Alamos copy machine. More CREMs went missing — and were subsequently found — in January 2002, November 2002 and January 2003. Last December, lab director Pete Nanos put several employees on “paid investigative leave” after 10 CREMs vanished.
Two weeks ago, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham called for Los Alamos and the other nuclear labs to do away with removable drives and disks altogether by 2009, moving to a “diskless environment” instead.
But Danielle Brian, executive director of the nuclear watchdog Project on Government Oversight, said five years is too long to wait. Abraham’s initiative “should begin immediately, with Los Alamos as the top priority,” she said. “Going medialess will make this problem go away overnight.”
Los Alamos has reduced its CREM stockpile by nearly 60 percent. A nice move, Brian said, but not enough.
“There’s still a lot of stuff for them to lose,” she said.