The University of California has informed the Energy Department that it is immediately stepping up security at the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons laboratories. The university's move is an effort to prevent future security scandals like the current controversy over the disappearance--and mysterious reappearance--from a Los Alamos vault of two computer hard drives containing sensitive nuclear bomb secrets.
In a letter hand-delivered to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson earlier this week and obtained by Newsweek, University of California President Richard C. Atkinson said that five new security measures were being introduced at both laboratories to tighten controls on the handling of weapons secrets, particularly information stored on portable computers and recording media like detachable hard drive cartridges and floppy discs.
The five new security measures include: "Locking down" (in secure vaults) all portable collections of information, like disks, hard drives and laptops, containing information classified "secret" and higher until more permanent security measures are in place to limit and monitor access to the material. Limiting the amount of secret information stored on computer disks, hard drives and other electronic media. Making sure that any secret data which is put on electronic equipment for the purposes of taking it out of a secure area is encoded so that it can't be read by unauthorized people. (The data on the hard drives which went missing from Los Alamos' top secret X Division was not in code.) Reducing the number of people allowed into vaults where secret information is stored and putting in place high-tech security devices--like electronic code locks or "biometric" devices (such as handprint-scanners)--to record the movements of people into restricted areas. Putting in place a "cradle to grave" accountability system for what the university and government consider the "most sensitive" kinds of material classified "secret." (This means keeping track of everyone who handles such data from the moment secret information is recorded until it is erased, burned or shredded.) Congressional investigators and University of California officials say that the Atkinson letter is one of the strongest such letters ever sent from the University to the Energy Department. A university spokesman said Atkinson will soon send out letters to management and workers at the weapons labs ordering them to carry out the new security procedures. The University of California and its Los Alamos lab managers have been savagely criticized by members of Congress for not having adequate security measures in place to prevent the unauthorized removal from secure vaults of sensitive items like the two Los Alamos hard drives, used by nuclear emergency teams as a field manual for disarming lost, stolen or home-made nuclear bombs. In the vault where the Los Alamos hard drives were stored, workers entering the secure room had to sign in and tell a guard what they wanted. But no measures were in place to monitor whether the workers were taking any secret material out of the vault. A University of California spokesman said that security measures were a "difficult, complex" area and that no set of security rules can stop human errors or accidental mistakes, which is what investigators believe is at the bottom of the latest Los Alamos security mystery.