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Burden of Proof

Two Missing Hard Drives at Los Alamos Spark Security Concerns

Aired June 15, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LARRY CRAIG (R), IDAHO: This could be the greatest breach of intelligence that we have ever experienced, or at least it has that potential. We need answers, the American people need answers.

JOHN BROWNE, DIRECTOR, LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LAB: We can't excuse errors, but people do make mistakes when they're under stress. My assumption was that someone made a serious mistake.

SEN. GORDON SMITH (R), OREGON: This is so unfair to the American people. I'm not at liberty to tell you everything I have been told that was on those discs, but I think all Americans can sleep less securely now, and I don't know where this nightmare stops.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Missing hard drives, nuclear secrets, congressional hearings: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, the potential fallout of a security breach at Los Alamos.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Greta is off today.

The disappearance of two top secret computer hard drives is raising concerns over security and has members of Congress demanding answers. The hard drives contain some of the nation's most important nuclear secrets. This latest intelligence breach has Los Alamos National Lab officials and the Energy Department on the defense about national security.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD (R), COLORADO: I wonder, I seriously wonder if we don't have better security at our Wal-Mart stores than you do at the Los Alamos labs. At least when there's cash missing out of the cash register, you know about it immediately. Now here's a vault that apparently did not have the standard security procedures going there or we would have known about it immediately.

BILL RICHARDSON, ENERGY SECRETARY: We need to get to the bottom of this. Yesterday, several administrators were relieved. Today we're starting polygraphs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: And joining us from Capitol Hill is Democratic Senator Richard Bryan. In New York, we're joined by former FBI agent Bill Daly; in Virginia Beach, Virginia, former federal prosecutor David Geneson; and here in Washington, Brad McClam (ph), Walter Pincus of the "Washington Post," and Aaron Namon (ph). And in the back, Julia Gardner (ph) and Renee Cortland (ph).

Walter, I want to go right to you because you've been covering these security stories. This is the latest in what seems to be a whole line of some problems. Tell us about this one. Tell us about the missing hard drives.

WALTER PINCUS, "WASHINGTON POST": This one is tough to deal with. What you're dealing with is a team that works out of Los Alamos whose job it is to go out in case there is a nuclear disaster, a bomb found, a threat of a nuclear bomb, and try to deal with it. And what they have is a portable suitcase, is the way to think about it. And in it are two hard drive disks; one is a backup.

The disk has on it information that's helpful in figuring out what kind of nuclear device they may be facing, and if they face that kind of device, how they could dismantle or disarm it. So it has nuclear material, it has nuclear secrets. It's not just about American weapons, it's about Russian weapons, some other devices.

And what happened is that, on the eve of the fire which took place in early May in Los Alamos, two members of this NEST team, people who work on this stuff regularly, went into a vault where they have three of these suitcases. They picked up one that they were going take with them, looked in it and found that the two disks, the primary and the backup, weren't there. They took two disks out of the other suitcases and left, moved the two remaining ones -- suitcases -- without the two disks in one of them, and put them in a safer place, took it outside and -- as a reason to be available in case there was some kind of nuclear disaster while a fire was going on.

The lab was then subsequently closed for 2 1/2 weeks. They did not tell anybody that they had found that these two hard drives missing on May the 7th. And when they went back in on May 24, they spent a week, they and perhaps other members of the team, furtively looking for the two missing disks, couldn't find them, and finally, a week later, reported it to John Browne and the security people at Los Alamos. And that set off these current train of events.

COSSACK: Walter, from your indication or from your story, then, there is no way of knowing how long these missing hard drives have been missing?

PINCUS: They -- the last time they were inventoried inside the vault was on April the 7th.

COSSACK: So we know that on April the 7th they were. But since April the 7th, there is no telling how long these two hard drives, which contain the material that you just described, have been gone.

PINCUS: One team member did a second inventory on the 27th and verbally says he believes they were there, but he couldn't certify. So it's -- you have to use April 7 as the last time.

COSSACK: All right.

Joining us now, Senator Richard Bryan from Nevada.

Senator Bryan, you have recently said as follows: that the Energy Department seems to be "suffering from a culture of indifference about security." The word "culture" to me indicates that perhaps you mean that this isn't just something that's recent, but perhaps a culture means that this is something that's been going on for a long, long time.

SEN. RICHARD BRYAN (D), NEVADA: I think that's accurate. I would say decades would be a fair statement. I think what you have is a cultural clash here. You have the academic and scientific community, men and women who are committed to the pursuit of scientific excellence who really, if not disdainful, are somewhat indifferent to the other aspect of the job, and that is to protect these national security interests. And so I don't think that they have a high sensitivity to the need for security procedures, and that's been evident for decades

The criticism that's been voiced with respect to this particular security breach I think is particularly egregious. I mean, a little over a year ago we had the Wen Ho Lee situation at the Los Alamos Lab. And what is absolutely incredible, mind-boggling, as I've characterized it, is that of these 83 people that had access to the lab, 26 of them had access without escort, could enter the lab, remove contents -- we're talking about classified material -- leave and return again without either a log-in or log-out procedure. There's greater security in checking out a library book at your local public library.

COSSACK: Well, Senator Bryan, what would your suggestion, then, be to be done? I mean, if we're talking about a culture of -- let me just say, interpret your words -- of well-meaning people, but apparently implication being a failure of security, what can we do?

BRYAN: Well, first, I think we thought he had done that. We had -- General Habiger was brought in by Secretary Richardson, a military officer. I think a lot of us had the impression that he was going to be the "Ivan the Terrible" of security procedures. I must say that I think there's been a real failure on that part. Now the Senate has unanimously confirmed General Gordon. He is a deputy director at the CIA, a fellow with very impressive credentials. Hopefully he will be the answer to this problem.

But it is a systemic problem, in my judgment, that's going to require a real aggressive effort to root out what I would consider persistent attitudes.

Let me just add one other point, if I may. Even as we questioned the panel yesterday, what I found so astounding is that none of the panelists said, you know, you're right, those procedures were too lax. It's as if, well, you know, everybody has access to classified information at the laboratory. What's the big deal about not having a sign-in, sign-out log?

COSSACK: Yes, it's an interesting example, I suppose, of what you're saying of people who see their job and don't, perhaps, see the other parts of it.

BRYAN: Yes.

COSSACK: But when you say "systemic," sir, don't -- what you're saying is that it's up and down. I don't know how you get to systemic. What can Congress do for that?

BRYAN: Well, I think the only thing that Congress can do is to continue its oversight procedure, which we've done in this committee, as well as others. And, again, General Gordon, he is the man that's riding to the rescue now, an impressive person by background and experience. Hopefully he can shake up the troops. But I have to tell you, the shocking thing is not that this is the first time it's occurred, but this lab, in a little over a year, had a major security flap. You would have thought somebody would have gotten the word. And I think, in an expression, they simply don't get it.

COSSACK: All right, our thanks to Senator Bryan.

Let's take a break. When we come back, the repercussions of this disappearance and how any potential cases would be prosecuted in court. Stay with us.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

Hawaii's governor became the first in the nation to sign a bill that allows the possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes. Seven other states have decriminalized the drug for medical use through ballot measures.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the World Wide Web. Just log-on to CNN.com/Burden. We now provide a live video feed, Monday through Friday, at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. And if you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand. You can also interact with our show, and even join our chatroom.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. EUGEME HABIGER, OFFICE OF SECURITY AND EMERGENCY, DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY: We will not tolerate security lapses at the Department of Energy. This sentiment was made very clear to me by Secretary Richardson, when I came on board almost one year ago. This sentiment has also been clearly articulated in numerous security initiatives we have issued over the past year to include timely reporting of security concerns.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: Two missing hard drives at Los Alamos are raising fears over security breaches at the National Laboratory. Congressional and government investigators are trying to determine the effects of the disappearance and who's responsible.

Bill, join us now, and put us -- put into context for us exactly how serious it is, these losses that we're talking about, the loss of these hard drives? What does it really mean?

BILL DALY, FORMER FBI INVESTIGATOR: Well, Roger, having been involved in counter-espionage investigations for the FBI, I can tell you that these are some of the crown jewels of what some organization or government around the world would want to get their hands on.

What these contain, as outlined earlier, these contain the schematics of nuclear devices, of various countries around the world, including our own, that could either help a country further develop their own nuclear arsenal, give someone a start who doesn't have any nuclear capability, and on the other side, it also would tell someone exactly how we're ready to respond to a nuclear emergency or the threat of a nuclear device being placed in what the nest (ph) team, the nuclear response team, would do when they get there. So it may even give someone a counter-measure in how we would deal with such an emergency.

So I consider this a very serious issue, not just from the standpoint of security at Los Alamos, but also just for our own national security, for each and every one of us.

COSSACK: Let me see if I can put it in a better, or at least different word, what you are saying is if this was a criminal, this is the information that a criminal knows that would know to know how the police respond?

DALY: Absolutely, they have -- they now know exactly what the operating standards are and might know exactly how to avoid being caught, or, in this case, how to set off a device, while we think we are defusing it, they put something else in there that would to make it go off.

COSSACK: All right, Bill, there is no, obviously, denying how important this material is. But yet I have seen that most people don't believe this is espionage, as much as it is negligence. What do you feel?

DALY: Well, given the fact there are various levels of security, and that this is a -- first of all, it is a high level security operation, so you do have to go through security checks, and these were contained in a vault area. The fact that they're missing, in the world of espionage, is a little bit suspicious. Usually, things are copied and you don't leave such a trail behind you, where they are actually missing, where someone can find that out. But even the fact that it may be misplaced or lost, we would have to assume, from an intelligence standpoint, that someone could have had access to it, and have to assume that they have been compromised.

COSSACK: David, as a former prosecutor, you know, you have had to deal with these kinds of cases, what particular kinds of problems that we have talked about, what do they present for the prosecutor?

DAVID F. GENESON, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: I think you have a series of problems. One, of course, is the fact that you are working in an environment that is highly classified, and you are dealing with people who have clearances and, as you said earlier, have a perception and a perspective that may not include valuing the same sort of constraints, legal constraints that we think are important, not because they are bad people but because they misapprehend their role as concerns the importance of the work they're doing. So you have those problems.

Additionally, you have to determine, as Bill was suggesting, whether or not the compromise led to significant damage. As a prosecutor, in terms of trying to make a case, you would have to be able to show that, in fact, there was at least some strong suggestion of compromise and that the damage assessment reflected the kind of serious potential that would persuade a jury or a judge that this was important and merited appropriate punishment.

COSSACK: Congress, as we have talked about, is trying to find remedies for the situation, Congress passes laws. Do we need new laws, security laws? or what about the ones that we have?

GENESON: In my experience and I've done a number of cases that bear on the sort of issues, it's not the lack of laws, it's the lack of procedures. As the senator said earlier, the problem, for example, in this instance, was the ability for 23 people to move freely in and out of that system without even the slightest audit function or, from all we know, without the slightest audit function being in place.

The ability to freely move in and out of a location with highly classified information, or in this case, material creates, in itself, an opportunity for someone either to be negligent or intentionally involved in criminality. The kind of procedures that are necessary seem to arise on a regular basis every time one of these things happen, and get in place for a short period of time, and then seem wander away or get washed away over time.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

Up next, a look at the security at the government's top secret facilities, and what potential employees have to agree to before going to work there. Stay with us.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: On what charges has a retired United States Army Reserve colonel been arrested?

A: Espionage. George Trofimoff has been charged with spying for the Soviet Union from 1969 to 1994

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: The Los Alamos National Laboratories are missing two hard drives containing top-level nuclear secrets. This security snafu has raised new concerns about the safety of U.S. intelligence and the people hired to protect it.

Bill, let me ask you, how do you go about investigating something like this? Suppose you were called in as the head of a response team. What do you do?

DALY: Well, the first thing you want to do is make sure that you've gathered up as many records as you can before anything could become adulterated or changed or further lost. You want to make sure that whatever they do have in the way of an audit trail is available to you.

In one hand, the investigation is made easy by the fact that we're dealing with a fairly small group of people who could have had access, or we suspect should have had access to the area, and we can start looking at them both from conducting interviews -- you'd conduct further background checks on people -- you'd also be looking at doing polygraph examinations -- as a tool, not as the be all and end all, but as a tool to the investigation.

So, all three components -- actually four when you factor in the audit trail -- will go into the investigation and will start to develop leads. And I would suspect that we have to move quickly, as I said, because it's a small population we're actually dealing with.

COSSACK: Walter, former Senator Rudman has been called in the past to view and examine the security at Los Alamos and other places. In a report he wrote, he had the following quote: "Organizational disarray, managerial neglect, and a culture of arrogance, both at Energy Department headquarters and the labs make for an espionage scandal waiting to happen."

Now, you have covered this extensively for the "Washington Post." Do you agree or disagree?

PINCUS: Well, I think there is a different kind of attitude in Los Alamos, because you have to understand, first of all, that half of it is non-security. There -- it really is like one of the great scientific laboratories of the world. And they get good scientists out there because they promise they can go work on their own projects, and then bring them in when what they're doing -- or they need solutions to weapons problems.

The other side of this and this particular group is that they developed this process. And the 23 people that are now sort of the prime targets of the initial investigation, they actually began polygraphing yesterday. The facility out there is only capable of doing two at a time. I think they've only gotten to two or three people. But the FBI already has a priority list out of that group because they're working first on the assumption that it is a misplacement. It's some failure, rather than somebody stealing it, because it's just -- you've got to go through too many guards even to get to that vault in the first place.

COSSACK: But when we're using the word arrogance, isn't it incredibly arrogant, the notion that someone walked into that vault, looked down and saw what has been described as a suitcase, which contains these hard drives, noticed them missing, and didn't tell anyone about it?

PINCUS: There's no answer to that, and that is an enormous failure. I don't want to defend the lab people, but what's interesting about the past year is there's only been one case of espionage alleged. And today we have something like the 61st espionage case involving the Pentagon in the last 18 years. So there's been one case at the lab of allegations, and there's something like 18 convictions, and 60 allegations of espionage at the Defense Department.

That doesn't stop this idea that that thing should have been reported right off the bat. That represents the kind of arrogance that exists there. It's a team of people, and whether these two, who went in to get it out, were the people who misplaced them, or they're protecting maybe what they think are their other compatriots who made a mistake. That's the first goal of this investigation: to find out.

COSSACK: David, as a prosecutor, what would do you in terms of the individuals who failed to report this loss? I mean, what -- how would you go about that?

GENESON: Well, there are obligations in place, I'm sure, by regulation from the Department of Energy and nuclear regulatory agencies that require that they disclose the existence of lost material. And in terms of classified information, there are various laws that apply to the misplacing or incorrect placement of classified information, or in fact, the loss of it, even without intent to disseminate it.

I think that what Walter raises in terms of the relative problems -- that is, in terms of the agency there versus the military -- is sort of a misplaced issue. And I don't mean to offend, but the presumption of compromise that Bill alluded to earlier is just as dramatic here. Once that information is gone, once that information is no longer controlled, it is highly at risk. And therefore, the government must assume that it is in the wrong hands. There's an old saying that two people can keep a secret...

COSSACK: All right.

GENESON: ... as long as one is dead.

COSSACK: All right, David.

GENESON: We have a problem here.

COSSACK: I'm afraid that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

You can weigh in on the Los Alamos security lapses today on CNN's "TALKBACK LIVE." That's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time, and we'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

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