FAS | Government Secrecy | June 2000 News ||| Index | Search | Join FAS


Agence France Presse
June 17, 2000

US nuclear secrets at the mercy of information technology

By Jean-Louis Santini

As technological advances squeeze vast amounts of information onto objects as small as a CD, the United States has had trouble ensuring the security of its nuclear secrets, experts said.

Two computer hard drives that had gone missing from the Los Alamos nuclear laboratories illustrate the problem of keeping secrets in the information age.

The hard drives, recovered on Friday, contained information on how to disarm and dismantle US, Russian and other nuclear devices, to be used by emergency response teams in case of a nuclear bomb threat or accident.

The latest Los Alamos scandal comes less than one year after the case of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born scientist charged with spying for China.

He is suspected of downloading classified data about the miniaturized W-8 nuclear warhead to an unsecured machine. Lee has admitted downloading information, but says it was a routine procedure and denies passing anything to China.

The US State Department has also experienced an embarrassing series of security lapses, including the disappearance of a laptop computer containing highly classified information.

"The common feature of all of these incidents is that it involves large amounts of sensitive data in a very compact electronic form," said Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists.

While hard disks, CDs and tape cartridges are regularly used, the security system and policies are still designed "in large part to protect paper documents," he says.

"They are significantly less effective in protective electronic information," Aftergood said.

Kenneth de Graffenreid, former director of intelligence at the National Security Council under the Reagan administration, said: "It's a long-standing problem that we have had in our atomic program since the beginning.

"It's a cultural thing ... scientists dislike secrecy," said de Graffenreid.

He pointed out that while espionage is not new, "one person, one incident could not physically have done the damage even 15 years ago that can be done today."

"Thousands of safes are on one CD, so you can put the CD in your pocket," he said. "It's going to be increasingly difficult in the future to protect secrets."

Another security specialist, David Major, who for 24 years was with the FBI's counter-espionage bureau, says the problem is less of a systematic problem and more of a "problem of attitude."

"There is an attitude in the United States about how important the secrets are. We tend to be the kind of country and society that favors openness," he said.

"Scientists always see security as getting in the way of exchange of information -- that makes scientists a wonderful target for the intelligence service."

"I don't think it's a systemic problem. There is no big weaknesses in the system of secrets protection, but there is a potential risk in some federal agencies because of the attitude of laxity," he said.

Former Pentagon official Frank Gassney, who was with the Reagan administration, is more critical.

"This is an endemic problem with security with this present administration in this country. The philosophy they represent is one that is indifferent to the most basic principle of physical information and personal security," he says.

"Los Alamos is the (latest) example of a physical security problem." Gassney said.

"This administration has made a practice of sharing intelligence with other governments including some hostile ... it's craziness."

Copyrightę Agence France Presse




FAS | Government Secrecy | June 2000 News ||| Index | Search | Join FAS