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GAO: Security Lapses Continue at Los Alamos

POSTED: 06:30 PM ET, 07/15/2008 by Derek Kravitz


"Washington Watchdogs," a periodic feature of the Post's Investigations blog, looks at the findings of the federal government's official investigators.

(Updated to include a statement from Los Alamos National Laboratory)

Security lapses at one of the nation's three nuclear weapons testing labs, the storied Los Alamos National Laboratory in the New Mexico desert, have continued despite frequent and sometimes heated calls for improvements by congressional leaders, according to a Government Accountability Office report released today.

The report, which was requested by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, cited "persistent, systemic security problems" at the lab, which was built in 1943, employs some 13,000 people on a site stretching 40 square miles and has an annual budget of $2.7 billion.

Los Alamos scientists built the first atomic bomb and today oversee the security and reliability of the nation's nuclear arsenal. Although the technical expertise of its scientists and engineers is widely renowned, the lab made major missteps in recent years, ranging from industrial accidents to failures to keep track of sensitive data.

In 2004, all operations at Los Alamos were suspended for seven months due to multiple security incidents related to mishandling classified material.

The next year, hackers stole the names and Social Security numbers of 1,500 National Nuclear Security Administration employees.

In 2006, nearly 1,600 pages of classified information, including nuclear weapons material, were removed from a classified vault by a contractor who downloaded information onto a thumb-drive and removed it from the lab.

"Regrettably, the security problems at Los Alamos no longer seem to shock and appall. A dozen hearings by the Energy and Commerce Committee revealed, confirmed and reconfirmed that the lab was run more like a corner hamburger stand than the crown jewel of the nation's nuclear weapons program," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), the chairman and ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. "Most frustrating was a culture that treated America's nuclear secrets like leftover napkins."

James Rickman, a spokesman for Los Alamos National Laboratory, issued the following statement after the GAO report was released:

"The GAO report documents the significant number of major improvements and actions that LANS has taken to correct legacy issues the Laboratory faces in appropriately managing security risks. While time will be the ultimate measure of whether these actions can be sustained, we believe that we have, developed a process to focus on continuous improvement; the Contract Assurance System will help us monitor progress and ensure sustainability. Together with an aggressive approach to reducing our classified holdings and providing engineering solutions to common human performance issues, we consider our efforts to be a responsible and focused approach to protecting national security. The NNSA has also stated (Appendix 5, page 62 of the report) that our progress in addressing security risks 'has formed the framework for long-term security improvements.'"

Rickman also noted several "security accomplishments" by the lab, including a positive trend in reducing the number of significant security incidents since 2005; the reduction of classified parts holdings by 40 percent; consolidation of classified assets into fewer vaults and vault type rooms; and creation of the "Super Vault Type Rooms" that further consolidates classified holdings and "effectively reduces the number of workers that have routine access to classified material."

Investigators with the GAO found that the terms of government contract with Los Alamos National Security LLC, the private consortium that manages the lab, does not provide "meaningful financial incentives for strategic security improvements."

The result, lawmakers say, is the faulty storage of classified items in unapproved storage containers and weaknesses within the site's internal computer network system.

The GAO also found that the Los Alamos Site Office, which is charged with monitoring contractor performance, "continues to suffer from a shortage of security personnel" and "lacks funding for needed security training."

By Derek Kravitz |  July 15, 2008; 6:30 PM ET Washington Watchdogs
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Los Alamos National Laboratory issued a formal response to the report. It is curious and disappointing that Mr. Kravitz did not seek comment about the report from LANL as would be standard procedure for the majority of journalists. The LANL statement follows:

"The GAO report documents the significant number of major improvements and actions that LANS has taken to correct legacy issues the Laboratory faces in appropriately managing security risks. While time will be the ultimate measure of whether these actions can be sustained, we believe that we have, developed a process to focus on continuous improvement; the Contract Assurance System will help us monitor progress and ensure sustainability. Together with an aggressive approach to reducing our classified holdings and providing engineering solutions to common human performance issues, we consider our efforts to be a responsible and focused approach to protecting national security. The NNSA has also stated (Appendix 5, page 62 of the report) that our progress in addressing security risks 'has formed the framework for long-term security improvements'.

"Examples of our security accomplishments cited in the GAO report include:
• A positive trend in reducing the number of significant security incidents since 2005.
• Significant reduction in the amount of Accountable Classified Removable Electronic Media (ACREM)
• Consolidation of classified assets into fewer vaults and vault type rooms
• Creation of the "Super Vault Type Rooms" that further consolidates classified holdings and effectively reduces the number of workers that have routine access to classified material
• Reduction of classified parts holdings by 40 percent.

"We take our commitment to protecting classified information extremely seriously."

Posted by: James Rickman | July 15, 2008 8:04 PM

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