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Hard drives with nuke secrets vanish from Los Alamos

With government security like this, who needs terrorists?

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In an earlier story we noted that the Clinton Administration, having buckled to an hysterical fear of terrorism, has initiated some of the most spectacular domestic and foreign snooping schemes in US history, easily putting to shame such notable neurotics as Richard Nixon.

But evidence is mounting that significant threats to US security are emerging from a vast federal bureaucracy whose sins of omission have been allowed to fester behind cover provided by the Administration's noise and hype decrying rogue states and cyberterror and kidnapped children, and subsequent demands for increased funding of schemes to monitor the populace.

The latest stuff-up involves the loss of hard disk drives containing data which might reveal the locations of US nuclear weapons and weapons-grade fissile material, along with intelligence data on Russian nuclear technology, from a vault at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the New York Times reports.

The loss was detected 31 May as Los Alamos staff prepared for possible emergencies when a nearby forest fire set by the US National Park Service went wildly out of control and threatened the facility, according to the Times story. NBC News has disputed that detail, claiming that the loss was discovered at least a month earlier.

The drives had been stored in locked containers in a vault in the laboratory's X Division, where nuclear weapons are designed. The containers were in the vault, but found to be empty, officials noted, raising the faint hope that the drives could be in use somewhere in the Lab for a legitimate purpose.

The drives contain data used by the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, which responds to nuclear accidents and nuclear-related threats from terrorists. The data includes all the information on American nuclear weapons needed to render them safe in emergencies, officials said. The drives also contained intelligence information on Russian nuclear weapons programmes.

"At this point there is no evidence that suggests espionage is involved in this incident," Department of Energy (DoE) office of counter-intelligence Director Edward Curran noted Monday.

The DoE, which administers the Los Alamos Lab, has come under fire for slack security in the past, most notably in the case of former staffer Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese immigrant whom the government suspects of passing US nuclear secrets to mainland China.

Federal investigators discovered that Lee had copied classified nuclear weapons data from a secure computer at Los Alamos to an unclassified computer network. Lee is awaiting trial on charges of mishandling classified data.

The US government is believed to have severely botched the investigation into Lee's ties to China out of timid overcaution, perhaps inspired by fear of discovering anything which might embarrass the President, for whom courting and accommodating Beijing has become an obsession. By the time the Lee case emerged, and the Administration subsequently came under public pressure to pursue it aggressively, evidence which might have convicted Lee of espionage had been lost.

The Lee debacle prompted US Energy Secretary William Richardson to order security training for DoE employees, while and Congress passed legislation creating an agency within the DoE to oversee US nuclear weapons laboratories properly.

But Los Alamos is hardly unique among government security stuff-ups. For example, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) is now investigating former CIA Director John Deutch for keeping classified information on computers in his house. Charges, if brought, would be similar to those bearing on Wen Ho Lee.

Then of course we have the embarrassing series of security lapses at the US State Department, which recently lost a laptop computer containing classified information, and earlier found a listening device planted in a conference room by Russian spies.

Meanwhile the Clinton Administration and Reno DoJ continue to promote hysteria related to terrorists both domestic and foreign, while struggling to increase federal powers of surveillance and the hefty budgets needed to back it all up.

But it would appear that the Clintonites might profitably spare some of the deep suspicion with which they view the American populace, and apply a bit of it to the agencies they're supposed to be running. ®

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