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Los Alamos does drug testing

Random screening of employees follows a security breach at the nuclear lab, officials tell a House panel.

January 31, 2007|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Los Alamos National Laboratory has started random drug testing of its scientists, engineers and other employees after finding secret nuclear weapons data in a former worker's residential trailer, lab officials told a House investigation panel Tuesday.

Police discovered about 1,500 pages of classified information, along with methamphetamine pipes, while responding to a domestic disturbance call at a trailer park in Los Alamos, N.M., in October. The trailer was the home of a contract employee who later admitted to owning some of the pipes, police reports said.

The drug testing is just one of the measures meant to tighten security at the lab, whose series of security breakdowns over the last eight years has infuriated members of Congress. The House Energy and Commerce Committee's panel on oversight and investigation has held 12 hearings into Los Alamos security since 1999.

Michael R. Anastasio, lab director, said he took personal responsibility for the October incident, but assured the House members Tuesday that he had disciplined two dozen employees and tightened security. Senior Energy officials, including Deputy Secretary Clay Sell, acknowledged the seriousness of the matter and pleaded for patience.

But Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), subcommittee chairman, said he had heard such assurances many times before. He noted that in 2004, the Energy Department shut down the lab for six months to address security breaches, costing taxpayers $350 million and failing to fix the problem.

In an interview after the hearing, Stupak said he was not reassured by anything he heard. Stupak said that if Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman gave the same answers when he testified in March, the committee would attempt to sharply cut back the responsibilities and funding for the New Mexico lab.

Security at Los Alamos remains "inadequate," said Gregory H. Friedman, Energy Department inspector general. An investigation by Friedman's staff last fall found half a dozen lapses, including unlocked cabinets that hold classified computers, unauthorized computer equipment tied into the Los Alamos network and open ports on desktop computers.

"How many other breaches are there out there that haven't been detected?" Stupak asked.

Referring to the methamphetamine case, Friedman replied: "If it weren't for a series of inadvertent circumstances, we might have never known about this one."

The lab's discovery of the classified documents in the trailer was first disclosed by the Project on Government Oversight. Danielle Brian, executive director of the group that has been investigating security breakdowns at nuclear weapons facilities, testified that she was particularly concerned about a pilot program that gave more security oversight to the lab.

But Brian said she thought random drug testing was a good idea, even though it seemed to show how far matters had slipped since the days of the Manhattan Project, when scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller developed the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos.

"Of course, in the days of Oppenheimer and Teller, drugs weren't as prevalent a part of society as they are today," Brian said in a later interview. "Now, it is part of modern society."

In the October incident, the former employee, who remains under investigation by the FBI, used USB thumb drives, or memory sticks, to download classified data and sneak it out of the lab.

After a security lapse in 2004, the Energy Department told Congress it would stop allowing use of desktop computers that had USB ports, but the rule was never implemented.

Since October, the department has rushed to disable those ports by squirting a common household adhesive into the port holes to prevent the insertion of thumb drives, said Linda R. Wilbanks, chief information officer for the department's National Nuclear Security Administration. Wilbanks came under particularly scathing criticism at the hearing.

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ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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