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FYI Number 100: July 26, 2004

Abraham and Domenici on Los Alamos Investigation

The early July disappearance from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) of two computer disks containing classified material has resulted in a Department of Energy investigation into the matter. It has also led Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to call for a "stand-down of operations" at "all Department of Energy operations using such controlled removable electronic media (CREM) as classified hard drives or computer discs," until new procedures for improving security can be developed and implemented. Los Alamos is located in New Mexico, home of Republican Senator Pete Domenici, who has been a key supporter of DOE's weapons labs and chairs the appropriations subcommittee responsible for DOE funding. On July 22, Domenici issued a letter to LANL employees, warning them of the consequences of continued security lapses to the credibility of the laboratory.

The LANL investigation is being led by DOE Deputy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow and Linton Brooks, Director of the National Nuclear Security Administration. In a July 20 statement, Abraham reported that McSlarrow and Brooks have concluded that "the failure to follow appropriate procedures is widespread and extends beyond the security area" and that "Los Alamos lacks an effective system to ensure the proper accountability of so-called Controlled Removable Electronic Media such as computer disks and hard drives.... [T]hey are concerned that some within the laboratory work force fail to understand the seriousness of the situation. This clearly illustrates the need both for immediate, effective and permanent corrective action and for meaningful administrative and disciplinary action at an appropriate time." Abraham's statement concluded, "The investigation will continue to place the highest priority on locating the missing material. I have therefore directed Deputy Secretary McSlarrow and Administrator Brooks to coordinate with other federal agencies associated with the work of Los Alamos, as well as with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to keep them fully informed of this investigation."

The text of Domenici's July 22 letter is reproduced in full below:

"To the Community of Los Alamos:

"One of the greatest honors of my life has been the opportunity to represent the people of Los Alamos in the U.S. Senate. You have shaped my career as I have pursued committee assignments such as the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development of which I am now the chairman that largely funds the laboratory. It has been the experts at Los Alamos on matters ranging from nuclear weapons to the human genome that have sparked some of my most passionate efforts in the Senate and, as a result, have created national programs ranging from science-based stockpile stewardship and nonproliferation programs to brain imaging and human health.

"However, over time, I have increasingly found myself expending considerable effort not in extolling the virtues of Los Alamos, but in defending the laboratory and the University in particular from its critics. I have been successful; the budgets continue to grow, and the programs and people at the laboratory are secure.

"I have found myself increasingly defending the laboratory for failures of basic management; human resources policies, procurement, project management, inventory control, and security. While critics have carped, I have worked to ensure that none of the attacks harmed the laboratory, but that effort has come at great cost.

"Unfortunately, that defense has increasingly cost the credibility of the laboratory. Today, in Washington, Los Alamos' reputation as a crown jewel of science is being eclipsed by a reputation as being both dysfunctional and untouchable.

"I do not yet know if the most recent security incident is, unto itself, of great consequence. But I can tell you that the analogy of the straw that breaks the camel's back is appropriate. These sorts of things, which engender a lack of confidence in not just the laboratory's management but also every one of its employees, must end. As the proudest defender of the laboratory, I can tell you that the defense can no longer be sustained unless the laboratory changes.

"Director [of LANL George "Pete"] Nanos and Deputy Secretary McSlarrow understand the situation. I have read reports of people who think they are making a bigger deal out of this than they should. Let me tell you as forcefully as possible that Nanos and McSlarrow get it. They know the magnitude of the stakes this time, and I completely support their efforts.

"Please understand the burden that is upon each employee of the laboratory. It will take years to reestablish Los Alamos' reputation. Any stumble will be a revalidation of the critics and undermine all of our good efforts. Los Alamos National Laboratory must maintain the highest standards for technology and science, and also integrity among its employees. With that understanding, I call on those responsible for this most recent incident to come forth to admit their errors so we can move forward."

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3094

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