APS News


Security at Los Alamos: What's Really Involved

I read with interest the "Back Page" in the October 2004 APS News by Rhon Keinigs; he contrasted the perceptions of LANL employees with those of some members of our government.

Information security is widespread with many corporations; much of their information is "Company Proprietary"; disclosure could permit competitors an advantage. A government also has its secrets. A security plan has two components, institutional and personal. Institutional security means that the locks work; the fences are secure; the guards are alert and well trained; unauthorized people are not allowed in, etc…Personal security is the responsibility of the individual and is based on trust; if he chooses to violate that trust then he is subject to sanctions.

No one enjoys security, but he agreed to it when he hired on as a part of the job; if one really does not like it, he can quit. DOE security has two layers; if one "goofs", e.g. leaves his safe file open, it is an "infraction" and the matter is listed in his employee file and he gets a talking to. If one willfully breaches security, or gets too many infractions, it is a security "violation", which can lead to disciplinary action including termination, and in serious cases, criminal action. The overwhelming majority of DOE employees and contractors obey security. There are a few scofflaws, very, very few; Wen Ho Lee made a comment to the media that everyone at LANL cheated on security. We do not.

A measure of the seriousness of a security incident is whether sensitive information got out. A safe file left open in a secure area is probably harmless because it is unlikely that that information would get into the wrong hands. Klaus Fuchs, a German and naturalized British subject, worked at the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos; he gave the Soviets the plans of the Fat Man device, which was used at Trinity, Nagasaki, and the 1946 Crossroads tests. The Soviets replicated Fat Man and test fired it in August 1949; the Soviet Union became a nuclear power sooner than it otherwise would have.

During the 1990's the LANL employee Wen Ho Lee, a naturalized US citizen from Taiwan, downloaded classified material from a classified computer to an "open" one where it was in jeopardy of being accessed by unauthorized persons; there is no evidence that the material was ever accessed. There was a great deal of publicity that Lee spied for the People's Republic of China; no evidence was found that the mishandled data ever got there. In a plea bargain, Lee was convicted of the one indictment count of mishandling classified information and sentenced to the nine months of his incarceration since his arrest. The fanciful 58 counts regarding espionage were dismissed. At no time did his defense claim that he had not been properly indoctrinated on security procedures.

Leaks of classified information to the media can be best described as a hemorrhage, particularly in the Washington, DC area. During my time at the DOE Office of Energy Intelligence (1996-1997), roughly once a week, the staff would gather to compose an unclassified media release to damage—limit the latest leak. The "roughly once a week" only had to do with DOE matters; other departments had their own problems.

Who leaks all the classified information? The major offenders seem to be congressional staffers; they are often hired off the street and may not have adequate background investigations and indoctrinations. The usual scenario: a briefing team, from say, DOE, would be summoned to Capitol Hill to discuss matters; very seldom was the congressional Member present, just his staffers. It was all in the next day's paper, whether the material was classified or not. Considering the limited attendance of the get-together, it should be easy to determine who the leaker was, but there is almost never any enforcement. The owner of military national security information could "pull" the security clearance of an offender, but the Member would likely retaliate. Further, an attempt to enforce the laws might lead to a classified trial, which is extremely awkward and expensive. The Bush administration is currently under investigation regarding a classified information leak to a prominent journalist.

Los Alamos has been criticized regarding security because the lab enforces security, which brings the matter to light. Usually, the case is a personal, not institutional, matter; Wen Ho Lee worked alone. A recent quote from a member of Congress is; there is "probably better security at the public library over CD's and videos that are on the Blockbuster top 10 list". There is almost no security enforcement inside the Washington Beltway; without enforcement, there is no publicity of security lapses. In 2004 there was a minor (no evidence that information got out) security incident at LANL. Director Nanos, with no comprehension of the difference between institutional and personal security, nor of the difference between an infraction and a violation, responded by shutting down the whole lab idling 12,000 people when only 19 appeared to have been remiss. Ultimately, he terminated five people for the incident. The shut- down continued for a number of weeks; classified work was down for ten weeks.

John L. Richter
Albuquerque, NM

Atmosphere at Los Alamos Called Stifling

Rhon Keinigs' description of Los Alamos labs does not square with my impression. While Los Alamos used to be one of the most exciting places to work for a scientist, back in the 1940s, it is not so anymore. It is a place in which little interesting physics is done and in which office politics kills creativity.

Most of the reason may be the difference in context: Back in the 1940s, all the scientists had other places they could call home and their time at Los Alamos was a choice to be made. Nowadays Los Alamos employees have nowhere but the lab to call home. The real estate is expensive and there is only one employer in town making for a high stakes individual financial situation. Back in the 1940s, the Nazis and the Japanese were devils to be fought with all imaginable fire power—not too long ago the mission of the lab used to be something like "making safer nuclear weapons", a semi-oxymoron that lacks as a motivator.

I worked in three different groups. In one of them, about 30 people turned out 2-3 peer reviewed articles per year. At another, the leader was a coauthor on thirty-some papers per year and it was known that he required coauthorship from anybody who would visit the group in the summer. The deputy group leader of the same group was very political and was going to head a big initiative on semiconductors, having no previous experience in the field. In the third group I had a friend who told me that he was so good at the politics that he no longer knew who he was.

While there are smart people in Los Alamos (it may have the highest concentration of PhDs anywhere) the place is very debilitating. This also shows on the kids. Once I went to a celebration of the Phi Beta Kappa society for the best high school students in town. One would have expected half of them to go to Ivy League schools. Only one out of about 20 did.

I believe the statement "the departure of [senior scientists and engineers] means a loss of important mentoring for new staff members" is wrong—one prerequisite to break up the current stifling atmosphere is to give packages to the senior people currently running the place. The implied statement that work is always done "safely and securely" contradicts stories about employee abuse I used to read in the New Mexican. One was about a lawsuit from a staff member who had suggested that there was dangerous waste. His managers allegedly moved his desk to just outside the bathroom and had the bathroom visitors heckle him.

Eugen Tarnow
Fair Lawn, NJ

No Lack of Security at Los Alamos

As a 30-year employee at the Los Alamos National Lab, now retired, I applaud the piece by Rhon Keinigs in the October 2004 issue of the APS News.

My experience at LANL and the security that goes with working there is the same as he described. During my career at LANL I worked on classified and unclassified programs and security was NOT lax. We were very conscientious about safeguarding classified material in all forms. The responses by the Congressional investigating committee members described by Rhon shows a complete lack of understanding of workers at the Lab and what goes on at a world class research institution.

Kudos to Rhon Keinigs for speaking out.

Richard D. Dick
Albuquerque, NM

Science: Just the Facts, Please

When I read the "Letters" column in the August/September 2004 issue of APS News, I could not believe that they were referring to the same commentary that I had read in the June issue, which I remembered as a reasoned discourse on the proper place of scientific endeavor in a democratic society.

I have now gone back to reread his words and find that the letters all deal with only a few paragraphs out of more than 20 in the article.

The complainers seem to forget that religion is a matter of "belief" only. Our Constitution guarantees us the right to practice our religious beliefs freely but not to impose them on anyone else.

Science, on the other hand, as Dr. Varmus so ably makes clear, must deal with the "facts" of nature. A scientist cannot choose to believe that gravitational force is repulsive because all experience and experiment shows it to be attractive. Any theory based on the assumption that gravitation is repulsive is bound to fail.

Stephen Rosenblum
San Jose, CA

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette