|Los Alamos Nuclear Secrets Missing|
|By H. JOSEF HEBERT |
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) JUNE 12, 2000 — Computer-held nuclear secrets stored in a vault at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have disappeared, prompting a top-level investigation, laboratory and Energy Department officials disclosed Monday.
Officials learned of the missing secrets and other sensitive material on June 1 and have not ruled out the possibility that the missing data are related to the forest fire that threatened the lab and forced its evacuation last month.
"This is an extremely serious matter, and we are taking swift actions to deal with it,'' said John Browne, director of the federal weapons research lab in New Mexico. The laboratory was embroiled in an espionage controversy involving a former lab scientists for much of last year.
The scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was arrested in December for misuse of secret nuclear data and awaits trial. Although under investigation for three years in connection with the alleged loss of U.S. nuclear secrets to China, Lee has not been charged with espionage.
Ed Curran, director of the Energy Department's counterintelligence office, said there is no indication espionage is involved in the latest disappearance.
"At this point there is no evidence that suggests espionage is involved in this incident,'' said Curran.
The secret material was contained in hard drives and discs in containers in a vault in Los Alamos' most highly classified area, the so-called "X Division,'' where designers of nuclear weapons do their work. Sources said the empty containers were found inside the vault.
Additional details about the nuclear material was not immediately available.
"Officials are conducting an exhaustive search of computers, safes, containers and vaults and have interviewed all staff members who had access to the vault where the media (nuclear materials) were stored,'' the laboratory said in a news release.
When the loss was discovered, the Energy Department's new security chief, retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, went to Los Alamos and directed an intensive search of but did not find the material, said officials who spoke on condition they would not be identified further.
The possibility has not been ruled out that the material disappeared during the turmoil that surrounded the evacuation of the Los Alamos laboratory, when the facilities were threatened by the massive wild fire that destroyed much of the community of Los Alamos and parts of the lab itself.
The disappearance of the documents also was being investigated by the FBI and the University of California, Berkeley, which manages the weapons laboratory for the Energy Department.
Browne said in a statement that "certain and appropriate'' disciplinary action would be taken "if the inquiry reveals that individuals did not fulfill their responsibilities'' in safeguarding the material.
It's not clear when the material was first discovered missing, although the incident was reported to the Energy Department on June 1.
The investigation and search for the material has become more difficult because many of the lab's scientists left the area last month because of the wild fires that swept the region. The lab itself was evacuated May 10 for five days. Officials repeatedly have said that all nuclear material was safeguarded and not threatened by the fires.
"Our inquiry has been conducted during a period in which employees are still recovering from the effects of a major emergency disaster,'' Habiger said in a statement. "Part of the laboratory's rigorous process for resuming operations has included a look at the physical integrity of all its buildings and security systems.''
Habiger could not be reached for comment.