Los Alamos Security Breach Confirmed
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 29, 1999; Page A1
The Clinton administration acknowledged yesterday that an espionage suspect at Los Alamos National Laboratory transferred secret nuclear weapons data from a classified computer network to an unclassified system vulnerable to outsiders.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson called the data transfer, between 1983 and 1995, "a serious security breach that is unconscionable." But he stressed that FBI agents have yet to determine whether the highly sensitive data, covering years of nuclear weapons research and testing, have been pilfered from the unclassified computers by foreign countries.
"We need to make a thorough assessment and not compromise the law enforcement investigation," Richardson said in an interview. "We don't know the extent of the damage, but I hardly believe that it's on a massive scale, from our preliminary findings."
But Richardson's statement, confirming a report in yesterday's New York Times, raised the possibility that Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born physicist at Los Alamos fired last month after reports he was a suspect, may have made available to China far more sensitive information than previously imagined. The acknowledgment also makes clear for the first time that serious security breaches and evidence of possible espionage, first uncovered at Los Alamos during the Reagan and Bush administrations, continued into President Clinton's first term.
This seemed likely to add fuel to a highly charged debate over the administration's handling of the espionage case centering mainly on Lee. For instance, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the new information about Lee's massive data transfer "confirms my worst fears" about lax security and counterintelligence at the weapons laboratories.
"I've known that this is an ongoing investigation and they were just at the tip of the iceberg – and that's obvious now," said Shelby. "We've got to get to the bottom of this whole thing."
His concern was shared by leading nuclear weapons experts, who described the computer programs and data inputs transferred by Lee as a body of historic knowledge developed through 50 years of research and more than 1,000 nuclear tests.
"It's staggering – I'm still in shock here," said Robert S. Norris, a senior analyst and nuclear weapons expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If someone had access to [Lee's] unclassified computer, this could be all over the world."
Norris's colleague, physicist Matthew G. McKinzie, said that unauthorized access to those programs – so-called legacy codes used to simulate warhead detonations – would represent "an unprecedented act of espionage, in its scope. The espionage in the Manhattan Project [would] pale in comparison."
David Leavy, a National Security Council spokesman, said Clinton has been briefed on the case by Richardson and is "confident that he is doing everything that should be done."
Asked whether Clinton stands by a statement he made last month that there was no evidence indicating Chinese espionage on his watch, Leavy said administration officials are "investigating a number of recent allegations and are under no illusion that China and other nations continue to try to acquire our secrets."
"This does not come as news to this administration," he added.
One senior administration official, sounding far less optimistic than Richardson, said that "a massive amount of very, very sensitive information was transferred from classified to nonclassified computers, and we may never know if it went anywhere else."
The transfers took place from 1983 to 1995, when Los Alamos began installing a new mechanism that would have made such transfers more difficult. "It looks like he was moving quickly [in the last months] to get it transferred before the new system came in," the official said.
When the FBI finally searched Lee's computer last month, following his dismissal March 8, the official said, they found he had made an effort to erase some of the classified material.
The official said that a password was needed to access the information even after Lee transferred it from the classified computer system. The unclassified system allows investigators to determine when and whether the data was accessed, the official said, and initial indications are that the material was accessed "at least a little bit." Who was looking at it remains unclear, the official said, since Lee could have given his password to someone else.
Another high-ranking official reported no indication that the information was compromised. He denied a published report of evidence showing a password had been misused to gain access. He also denied that the FBI had been derelict in not searching Lee's computer at the beginning of the espionage investigation in 1996.
At the time, FBI agents from the bureau's Albuquerque field office wanted to search the computer but were told they needed a search warrant from a secret federal court under the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act. The warrant was denied, the official said, because of a lack of evidence showing that Lee was engaged in acts of espionage.
Lee became a suspect in 1996 after the Energy Department and intelligence agencies determined that a Chinese military document the CIA had obtained a year earlier contained classified data about the size and shape of the newest miniaturized nuclear weapon. The FBI was unable to gather hard evidence against him and he has not been charged with a crime. But Lee was fired in March for security violations after the investigation was disclosed. Officials said transferring data to an unclassified computer system could be a crime, depending on the intent of the person who did it.
As soon as FBI agents discovered Lee had transferred massive amounts of secret data to his unclassified computer, Richardson ordered a shutdown of the classified computer networks at Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories on April 2 for an extensive security overhaul. The FBI is still reviewing material taken from the search of Lee's home, some of it in Chinese.
"You couple these measures with polygraphs, a doubling of the counterintelligence budget and extensive background investigation of all scientists visiting from foreign countries and I believe we're on the road to a very strong security and cybersecurity program," Richardson said.
But those measures will do little to stop nine separate congressional investigations into the Los Alamos case. Indeed, one high-ranking administration official said disciplinary action will soon be taken against managers at Los Alamos and at Department of Energy headquarters for failing to move Lee out of his sensitive position years earlier.
"Obviously, there was a breakdown there," the official said.
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