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The Nation

Energy Secretary 'Troubled' by New Los Alamos Report

January 17, 2003|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who has been strongly critical of the University of California's management of Los Alamos National Laboratory, said Thursday he was "deeply troubled" by reports that a piece of classified equipment may be missing at the nuclear weapons lab.

The New Mexico facility's new interim director, George P. "Pete" Nanos, disclosed Wednesday that an item -- possibly a computer hard drive -- came up missing in an October audit of 61,000 electronic items. Nanos said he believes the item may have been destroyed along with other outdated equipment, but he said that cannot be proven.

In a statement issued Thursday, Abraham called the disclosure of the missing equipment "yet another example of poor management of business practices that the University of California and the new laboratory management must resolve -- and resolve quickly."

Abraham has said the university's 60-year-old contract to run the laboratory is in jeopardy because of recent allegations of credit-card abuse, other fraud and missing equipment.

The university is struggling to hold onto the contract. A recent series of reforms at the lab included the replacement of its director, John Browne, and reassignment of some of its senior managers. The problems are under investigation by the FBI, the Energy Department and several congressional committees.

A spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce committee, which has launched its own investigation, said Wednesday's disclosure was evidence of what he described as UC's "inept" management practices. "The fact that there could be a missing hard drive containing classified information is simply astonishing," Ken Johnson said. He said investigators for the committee would go to the lab next week and interview the employee who reported the missing item.

In response, UC spokesman Michael Reese said the university shares the concerns. "It clearly indicates insufficient controls, which we have been assured are in the process of being addressed," he said.

"In matters of national security, there's clearly no room for error or patience," Reese said. "But we would ask that everyone keep in mind that we are only nine days into completely new management of the lab whose charge it is to revamp lab practices so this kind of thing never happens again."

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