WASHINGTON — Two computer hard drives missing from the Los Alamos National Laboratory contain highly sensitive data about the nuclear arsenals of France, China and Russia, in addition to secrets about American nuclear weapons, U.S. officials disclosed Wednesday.
The information, classified as "secret restricted data," includes diagrams and assessments of how various foreign nuclear warheads and bombs may be designed, the officials said. The data include key military intelligence about what the United States knows about other nations' nuclear forces--and what it doesn't.
Moreover, the missing hard drives are designed to be "plug and play," so they can be utilized in virtually any laptop computer without secret passwords or other sophisticated barriers, the officials said.
The potential intelligence loss has sounded alarms in the White House and on Capitol Hill, where a series of emotionally charged public and closed-door congressional hearings was dominated by blistering attacks on the Energy Department and its rocky stewardship of the Los Alamos lab.
"We're missing military plans that are so important to the safety of nations that their loss amounts to a security threat I don't think that we've faced since the Soviets moved nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba years ago," Sen. Ben Night-horse Campbell (R-Colo.) told a joint hearing of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
"What's missing, and may well have been stolen, is information about how to disarm our nuclear weapons and those of perhaps some other countries whose nuclear weapons could be stolen and used by terrorists," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). He said terrorists could use the information to "booby trap" a nuclear device to prevent it from being disarmed.
In a sign of the mounting concern, the FBI formally took the lead in what had been a joint investigation with the Energy Department. The CIA is heading a U.S. intelligence community effort to assess the damage of the potential loss at the New Mexico lab.
The computer hard drives were used by the lab's Nuclear Emergency Security Team, a group that assists the FBI in the event of a terrorist threat or accident involving a nuclear device. The NEST team is trained to rush to the scene with computer laptops, diagnostic equipment and other tools to help them identify, disarm or disable nuclear weapons from around the world.
"Our scientists have to know how to render safe any type of nuclear weapon," said Darwin Morgan, a spokesman for NEST at the group's headquarters in Las Vegas.
No evidence has yet surfaced to indicate the hard drives were stolen, rather than misplaced or mistakenly destroyed during a fierce wildfire that forced lab personnel to evacuate for two weeks last month. "But we have no choice but to assume the worst," a senior U.S. official said.
In a vivid illustration of congressional anger over the scandal, the Senate voted, 97 to 0, to confirm CIA Deputy Director John A. Gordon as director of the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration.
Congress created the NNSA eight months ago, at the height of a scandal over alleged Chinese espionage at Los Alamos, to oversee the Energy Department's nuclear weapon complex. Gordon will have the portfolio of undersecretary of Energy for nuclear security.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Gordon "an excellent choice" for "one of the most challenging assignments in the federal government."
Republicans cheered Gordon's confirmation and said it was long overdue. They insisted it had been blocked by Democrats trying to help the Clinton administration delay implementation of congressionally mandated reforms. But the latest security breach smashed the legislative logjam.
"Today, the squeaky wheel got some grease," said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told reporters that he has asked Gordon, a retired four-star Air Force general, to immediately conduct a "top-to-bottom" review of the Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories.
Richardson said he would testify Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Republican senators sharply criticized Richardson earlier Wednesday for declining to appear at the joint hearing. Some openly suggested he consider resigning.
"I think Bill Richardson should consider that he has failed at the job," Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), a member of the Senate leadership, said during a break. "People who fail at their job tend to want to leave it."
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the intelligence panel, noted that he had kept an empty chair for Richardson at the witness table. "What is he doing today that's more important than dealing with the problems of national security, the possible loss of some of our most vital secrets?" he demanded.