A little more than a month ago, wildfires in the parched southwestern U.S. state of New Mexico were threatening the Los Alamos National Laboratory. This is where America developed the first viable atomic bomb -- and where it guards many of its nuclear secrets. As officials at Los Alamos were preparing to evacuate the laboratory, they discovered that two computer hard drives were missing. The drives contained highly sensitive information on the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. And yet no one notified the director of the laboratory -- or his boss, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson -- about the missing data for more than three weeks. RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully reports.
Washington, 14 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Department of Energy, which guards America's nuclear secrets, is again under scrutiny for apparent lax security.
Throughout much of 1999, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the American atomic bomb was developed, was the subject of intense scrutiny. One of its former scientists, Wen Ho Lee, was charged with copying top-secret computer files.
The Lee case coincided with evidence that China had acquired highly classified nuclear-weapons information. But Lee, a Chinese native who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, has not been charged with espionage. He is in jail awaiting trial.
Now the Los Alamos laboratory, situated in the southwestern state of New Mexico, is being shaken by another embarrassment. Two computer hard drives containing information on the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals are missing. Their disappearance was discovered on May 7, the day before the laboratory was evacuated because of an encroaching wild fire.
And yet the senior authorities at Los Alamos were not informed until May 31, and U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's office was not told until the next day.
The two missing hard drives were meant to help members of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team to disarm U.S. and possibly Russian nuclear warheads in the event of a nuclear accident or a threatened terrorist attack.
John Browne, the director of the Los Alamos laboratory, says it is not yet known whether the two drives were stolen by a spy or simply misplaced in the confusion as the wild fire spread closer to the laboratory. But because the disappearance could be the result of espionage, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation -- or FBI -- has been called in.
Browne says he is acting quickly to deal with the issue. But his boss, Bill Richardson, appears not to be satisfied. The U.S. secretary of energy, speaking to reporters Tuesday in Washington, says there is no excuse for the way the situation was handled.
"The timelines are troubling. The fact that the Department of Energy was not notified immediately is troubling, and the lab is going to have to have some good explanations there. There's going to be accountability, there's going to be disciplinary action."
At the White House, President Bill Clinton's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, also expressed disappointment in the way the Los Alamos laboratory responded. But Lockhart urged patience to allow the laboratory, the Energy Department and the FBI to complete their investigations.
"Obviously, the president views this as a serious matter that both the lab and the FBI is currently investigating. There's a number of troubling questions raised by this, but I think we need to let the investigation take place before we try to reach any conclusion about these issues."
Eugene Habiger, a retired Air Force general who is in charge of security for the facility, says he does not suspect a deliberate act of espionage.
And Browne, the director of Los Alamos, says he can understand how employees of the laboratory could have accidentally misplaced the drives as they were preparing to evacuate the facility.
"People could have made a mistake. Errors in judgment occur when people are under great stress. People also sometimes forget what they've done with something when they're under great stress."
Richardson says there are no excuses for the disappearance of the drives. But he expressed faith in Habiger's response to this latest embarrassment.
"We're not going to stand for this. These are security problems that after countless resources and measures we believe had been corrected, there are still some glitches [problems] there. But I am confident that our security czar [director] and our security people acted promptly, rapidly, and we're trying to focus on the problem."
At the White House, Lockhart noted that the Clinton administration already had worked to tighten security at the Energy Department -- and at Los Alamos in particular. He says it is time to decide whether more needs to be done.
"And I think part of what's going on now within the department is to figure out whether the steps they've taken have proven to be effective or if there are more systematic issues that they need to look at."
This second embarrassment for Richardson comes at an awkward time. His Cabinet department also oversees U.S. policy oil, natural gas and gasoline. The price of gasoline in some areas of the country is now more than twice what it was a year ago. And summer is nearing a time when Americans do most of their automobile travel.
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries -- or OPEC -- decided at its most recent meeting not to increase production in an effort to ease prices, and the cartel will not meet again until June 27. Some critics are accusing Richardson of doing nothing to stop the steadily increasing cost of gasoline.