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Thursday, Apr. 19, 2007
A Breach in Nuclear Security
By Adam Zagorin/Washington
New Mexico police got more than they bargained for last fall when they responded to a call about a domestic dispute in a trailer park near Los Alamos National Laboratory. Not only had they stumbled on paraphernalia for making the drug crystal meth; they also found thousands of pages of highly classified documents detailing the designs of U.S. nuclear weapons.
"We're taking [the security breach] very seriously," said a spokesman for the Energy Department, which controls the lab, soon after the incident was made public. He added that Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman "was personally disturbed" by the matter. As well he ought to have been: New details obtained by TIME offer an even more disturbing picture of security at the nation's nuclear inner sanctum than the one outlined last year in a no-nonsense investigation by the Department's Inspector General. In fact, according to government documents, the woman who made off with the weapons designs was herself engaged in chronic illegal drug use and other serious security breaches that have never been made public. Documents also show that the DOE is investigating separate drug use by at least 35 other lab workers who received security clearances around the same time.
Investigators don't believe powers hostile to the U.S. have exploited this latest round of security lapses, although they cannot be certain. But clearly, those with access to the nation's nuclear secrets would be priority targets of foreign intelligence services, and problems such as drug abuse could make them vulnerable to manipulation.
"After years of security breaches at Los Alamos — and this shocking episode in the trailer last fall — you have to wonder, when will it end?" says Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, an independent, non-partisan government watchdog group. "How can we continue to believe Department of Energy promises to end this brazen laxity in the handling of national security information?"