St. Petersburg TimesIt has been 47 years since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for stealing nuclear secrets from the atomic laboratory at Los Alamos, 21 years since the left-wing magazine Progressive startled the world by publishing crude directions for building an atomic bomb.
June 18, 2000
How Well are U.S. Secrets Protected?
Successfully, experts say, but as the recent Los Alamos incident proves,by David Ballingrud
electronic storage makes it much more difficult.
Today, government officials are still reeling from another scare at the nuclear weapons lab at Los Alamos, after locating two, palm-sized computer hard drives missing for six weeks from a vault and trying to assure Congress and the public that the nation can keep a secret.
Can we? In this age of instantaneous worldwide Internet access and hacker mischief, how well are our nuclear secrets protected?
Furthermore, since bomb-building information has been available for more than 20 years, and since the Soviet Union's collapse, aren't the dangers much less than before?
Basic nuclear bomb technology is now held by many nations, and presumably some private organizations. But that doesn't mean there aren't secrets worth keeping.
It's a matter of degree, of sophistication. It's one thing to have a schematic drawing of a bi-plane, quite another to have the detailed plans for a Stealth bomber, including information on its maintenance, use and limitations.
"There may be lots of information in the public domain, but there isn't necessarily a lot of good information in the public domain," said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a non-profit national organization of scientists and engineers concerned with national security policy.
"There are still tricks of the trade."
Information about secrets is often secret, so questions about intelligence matters tend to produce general answers. But yes, experts say, the United States successfully protects many secrets. It is, however, becoming much more difficult.
As director of the U.S. government's Information Security Oversight Office, Steven Garfinkel is not responsible for security at Los Alamos or other national labs. But he is the country's top bureaucrat in charge of secrecy systems.
"It's harder to keep physical control (of information), now that it is stored electronically," he said. "It's easier to keep track of what's on a piece of paper than what's on a diskette.
"Back in the old days, when you created a document, you had a carbon copy, maybe two. Now, a document can go to a thousand places with the touch of a button."
"The task of protecting information is vastly more difficult today," agreed Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. "It's easy to collect enormous volumes of information into small packages and transport or transmit it."
Indeed, once the government announced Friday it had found the missing computer drives in a secure area of the lab, officials began scrutinizing them, trying to see whether they were the same ones that disappeared, and if they had been compromised or copied.
Even if the investigation ultimately proves reassuring, this is not the only recent breach at the nuclear lab. In 1999, the government investigated possible espionage at the lab regarding the transfer of secrets to China. Nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee was indicted in December on 59 counts of mishandling nuclear weapons secrets by moving classified data from a computer at the Los Alamos lab onto 10 portable computer tapes. He has not been charged with deliberately passing secrets to a foreign government.
Despite the new challenges of the high-tech age, Aftergood said, "The good news is that it doesn't matter quite as much as it used to. The threat environment is not quite as intense as it was during the Cold War. No terrorist, no matter how bad, threatens the existence of the United States as the Soviet Union once did."
In recent testimony before the Senate intelligence and energy committees, Los Alamos officials said the two missing computer drives were part of a "tool kit" for a response team known as NEST - Nuclear Emergency Search Team. They had last been confirmed in a top-secret vault April 7.
On May 7, NEST team members went into the vault to protect the kit from a fire raging near the laboratory. But the two drives, which contained information on dismantling or disabling U.S. and even some Russian nuclear weapons, were not in their metal container. The next day, the laboratory was evacuated.
Aftergood, a senior research analyst, said the government missed opportunities to better protect the material in the hard drives. He directs the federation's Project on Government Secrecy, which works to reduce the scope of government secrecy and accelerate the declassification of cold war documents.
There is no requirement to maintain a running inventory of who may have accessed or checked out a document or item classified "secret," though there is such a requirement for material classified "top secret."
The hard drives, though they might have contained top secret information and therefore should have been protected as such, were classified secret. According to testimony last week, 86 NEST members had access to the vault and the data, including 26 who could go in and out of the vault without escorts and had the ability to remove the hard drives without leaving any record of doing so.
This non-accountability for material classified as secret was adopted as a cost-saving measure by the National Industrial Security Program established by President Bush.
President Clinton and former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, while declassifying a great deal of material in recent years, actually sought tougher restrictions on access to the kind of material at Los Alamos.
This approach became known as the Higher Fences Initiative, since it envisioned higher security "fences" around a small set of the most sensitive nuclear weapons information, among them so-called "use control systems" that prevent unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon.
Most of the higher fences upgrades were blocked by the Department of Defense as too costly, according to a 1999 Pentagon letter.
Government officials have not acknowledged that the material in the hard drives would have been protected under the higher fences proposal, but Aftergood said it's a near-certain assumption.
Garfinkel declined to comment on specifics of the Los Alamos investigation, but noted that it has become harder to stick to the "need-to-know" principle. Although many people might have the security clearance necessary to view secret information, it used to be routinely withheld unless they had a need to know it.
Today, with so much data stored on computers, he said, "need-to-know is harder to enforce."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.