FEATURES & COMMENTARY
Washington, DC — Security has improved markedly at the government’s three nuclear weapons laboratories, but investigators were able to penetrate some sensitive areas of the facilities’ computer systems, said an Energy Department review released this week.
Security experts were unable to enter the top-secret computer network used for nuclear weapon design during the intense security review conducted over the summer.
But at two labs, Sandia in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore in California, the security team was able to obtain from the outside “sensitive,” though not secret, information on unclassified computer systems “without a whole lot of difficulty,” one official said.
At the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which has been the focus of a three-year investigation into alleged Chinese espionage, such penetrations were successful only from within the lab compound, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of the report’s release.
The study by the Energy Department’s Office of Independent Oversight says Los Alamos overall showed significant improvements in its security and was given a “satisfactory” rating.
The Sandia and Lawrence Livermore labs were given “marginal” rating, but officials said security improvement under way make it likely the two labs’ rating will be raised to satisfactory by year’s end.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said that while more work is needed, the findings showed major improvement and demonstrated that security efforts are working.
“It’s good to get a decent report card on security measures,” he said in a telephone interview. “Security at our labs is good and getting better. The labs deserve credit for their improvements rather than continued criticism.”
White House national security adviser Sandy Berger said Sunday that efforts to improve security, beginning in 1997, were hampered by “bureaucratic resistance” and “an institutional unwillingness” by the research labs to adopt more rigorous controls.
Berger, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” defended Clinton administration responses to allegation of Chinese espionage at the labs, about which he got a detailed briefing in mid-1997. While President Clinton directed new security measures in February 1998, it was not until earlier this year that tough, new measures were put in place.
The independent reviews by the team of 25 security specialists, dubbed by Richardson as his “junkyard dogs,” was intended to test those new measures, including computer safeguards and improved handling of classified material.
Over the past six months, new procedures have been implemented to guard against moving data out of the top-secret classified system and to better safeguard the unclassified system against outside access, officials said. The unclassified network has been compartmentalized, separating “sensitive” from other information, and electronic mail is being randomly monitored.
Nevertheless, one official said investigators were able to get into the sensitive areas of the unclassified system at all three labs during their reviews. He said changes were made to plug the security gaps.
Access to the unclassified computer network has been of concern because at Los Alamos, investigators in March found that a scientist had improperly transferred thousands of files of top-secret computer codes into his unclassified office computer.
The scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was fired in March for other security violations after being the prime target of a three-year FBI investigation into the alleged theft of nuclear secrets by China in the 1980s.
Lee has not been charged with any crime and has denied providing China with any secrets. While acknowledging he moved the computer codes, he claimed he did so only to make his work easier.
The security review at Los Alamos was conducted in August and earlier in the summer at Sandia and Livermore, officials said. It found Los Alamos had significantly increased computer security, improved protection of classified material and accountability of nuclear materials, added guards and put in more alarm sensors.
More importantly, there was “a marked change in attitude” about security among Los Alamos scientists and managers, one official noted.