"Joe Albright has a knack for coming up with great stories by just looking at records and drawing connections," says a colleague of the Cox newspaper chain's national reporter who last month distressed the military by writing about his casual walk through secret nuclear bases as well as the availability of blueprints of those facilities.
"The whole thing was chance," says Albright, whose reports led to an immediate tightening of security at America's nuclear weapons arsenals. His stories grew out of careful reading of public documents last fall. While studying the House appropriations committee hearings dealing with weapons programs, Albright noticed that many existing nuclear devices did not have electronic safety latches that prevent unauthorized detonation of the weapons. He asked the Pentagon for permission to tour a weapons site but was turned down.
Then, while reading the Commerce Department report of available government contracts, Albright saw an offer to bid on the upgrading of the security measures of several weapons storage facilities; he cross-checked that with the military appropriations report that listed the bases where upgrading was planned and, voila, he knew which bases housed nuclear weapons and which were considered underprotected.
He mailed $5.30 for the bid plans and promptly received fifty-three blueprints to a SAC base; for another $6, he received blueprints to another base. Included in the blueprints were details of the electrical alarm systems. A notice advised prospective contractors to visit the sites; he wrote letters asking permission, even signing them with names based on the German terrorist group, Baader-Meinhof. (One letter he signed Florence Bader, assistant to Mr. Albright, another, Prudence Meinhof.)
After giving his Social Security number, Albright was invited to tour the bases (whose identity he shielded in his writing), where he witnessed the transfer of nuclear bombs and was given lectures on the bases' security weakneses by personnel assigned to guide the man they assumed would bid to install fencing and better lightning.
"Anyone who sets out to grab a weapon is going to run a 99.999 percent chance of getting caught, if not shot," says Albright, but his effortless access to sensitive blueprints shocked military brass. Then, after Albright's stories appeared, after an appearance on the Today Show, he unexpectedly received another set of blueprints from a bureaucrat Albright assumes was just doing his job. That made a couple of generals very mad, and the military has suspended its tours of bases and is revamping its procedures for awarding contracts.