William J. Broad
New York Times
Workers at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory have been notified that disciplinary actions, possibly including one dismissal, are imminent in the case of computer hard drives that vanished from a safe and then were found behind a copying machine.
The targets of the disciplinary actions include those at the low levels of the weapons laboratory to the highest, officials there say, and at the University of California, which administers it.
The officials said three of the employees were Bradley A. Clark, a Los Alamos scientist, Stephen M. Younger, the head of nuclear weapons programs, and John C. Browne, the director of the laboratory. The officials said yesterday that other scientists might be reprimanded or suspended and that Dr. Clark could be fired.
The actions, while meant to close a chapter of the still-mysterious case of the missing hard drives, are likely to darken the already somber mood at the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Los Alamos is the main institution that designs and maintains the security of the country's nuclear arsenal.
The small hard drives, no bigger than a wallet, hold data on nuclear arms and are meant for use in emergencies by the government's Nuclear Emergency Search Team, or NEST, which is responsible for responding to nuclear accidents and terrorist threats.
The episode began in early May as the flames of a raging forest fire closed in on the sprawling Los Alamos National Laboratory, on a plateau in the forested mountains of New Mexico. As members of the team gathered materials, they discovered that two hard drives laden with nuclear secrets had vanished. The loss was reported on May 31, and the drives were found on June 16.
At the time, the laboratory was already reeling from the repercussions of the federal case against Wen Ho Lee, a former Los Alamos scientist who pleaded guilty on Sept. 13 to a charge of mishandling classified data. Reports that the drives had vanished touched off a hunt for them and for evidence about who had handled them last.
The reason for the proposed disciplinary actions is that it took three weeks for the head of the weapons laboratory to find out about the losses, federal and university officials said in interviews yesterday. Congress, already critical of laboratory security, made much of that embarrassing lag.
The proposed disciplinary actions are being recommended by the University of California, which runs the laboratories for the Department of Energy. Separately, officials said, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was still conducting a criminal investigation of the episode.
Officials said the Los Alamos NEST team was told of impending punishments on Tuesday, but they would provide no details. And they cautioned that the penalties were in the process of being finalized and could change. "The lab has made no decision to terminate any lab employee," said John R. Gustafson, a laboratory spokesman. "The review has looked at a wide range of disciplinary actions. The process is not done. And the actions that have been proposed are not final."
Gen. John A. Gordon, the director of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the new, semi-independent agency that oversees the government's nuclear weapons sites, said, "These are internal management decisions being taken by Los Alamos and the university."
Officials said details of the disciplinary actions might be made public as soon as Friday.
NEST is a largely volunteer force of top laboratory scientists who are ready to fly anywhere at a moment's notice to try to defuse a nuclear emergency.
The hard drives were stored inside a vault in locked containers in the X Division of the national laboratory, where nuclear weapons are designed. Dr. Younger, one of the main government witnesses against Dr. Lee, heads the division and Dr. Clark heads the NEST team.
Calls to Dr. Clark's office and home were not returned.
Late last night, the University of California issued a statement saying that "several managers and supervisors throughout the Los Alamos chain of command" would be affected by the proposed punishments. It said no further comments were possible because Los Alamos policy gave employees five days to respond and that the people involved had "extensive rights to appeal the final notice of discipline."
When Congress criticized Los Alamos over the episode, Dr. Browne vowed to take action. "It is difficult for me to fully convey my frustration at the damage a single act, apparently human error or intentional wrongdoing, can do to the accomplishments of so many," Dr. Browne told the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 21. "I am committed to taking the strongest possible actions I can to secure the nation's nuclear secrets. These actions will include disciplinary actions up to and including termination of employment against individuals who willfully or carelessly violate the rules."