The Real Nuclear Gap

The New York Times
June 16, 2000, p. A 33

The Los Alamos National Laboratory is facing another nuclear mystery. Two computer hard drives — full of weapons secrets — are missing. There is no proof that they have fallen into the wrong hands, but even if they have simply been misplaced, there is cause for worry. The missing drives are but a symptom of a widespread problem: sensitive information about nuclear weapons is not protected as carefully as nuclear hardware, even though it is just as dangerous if left unsecure.

The Energy Department, which oversees the national laboratories, isn’t revealing what the drives contain. But the data is used by the department’s Nuclear Emergency Search Team, the experts who must be ready, at a moment’s notice, to jump on a plane and find any nuclear bomb that might be planted on American soil — and then disable it.

The data on the drives, each about the size of a deck of cards, tells the team how to detect nuclear material in a multitude of situations — when it is underground, or encased in concrete or masked by the presence of natural or manmade background radiation.

“What you have is an entire library of nuclear signatures,” a Pentagon official familiar with the team’s operations told me. These are the guides that help the team uncover various kinds of nuclear material.

What worries this official is that the data could teach a foreign bomb designer ways to evade American detection efforts.

“If you know what your enemy is looking for, it is much easier to hide it,” he says. “If a mountain lion could morph his footprints into a turkey’s, think how difficult lion hunting would be. You would never know where the lion might be hiding.”

The data could be used to foil our efforts to disable a bomb. Some terrorist could “put an extra wire, or an extra bump, or an extra piece of metal where there isn’t supposed to be one,” he warns. This could prevent the search team from figuring out what kind of bomb they were dealing with.

The missing data also reveal how a stolen bomb might be set off. Most nuclear weapons are prevented from exploding by an internal safety system, but the data would help bypass it. To make matters worse, the drives include information about Russian nuclear designs. A terrorist group or rogue nation with the drives is a chilling thought.

The gaps in security that produced this mess are dismaying. They reveal the government’s failure to grasp an essential point: Information can be more important than hardware. As terrifying as the theft of one or two bombs would be, it is not nearly as frightening as the loss of the formula for producing an unlimited number.

Yet the protection of information does not get the same respect, and that extends beyond weapons labs.

The State Department, for example, has had its own security problems, including the disappearance of a laptop that contained highly sensitive files, including intelligence sources and methods related to weapons proliferation. And John Deutch, the former director of Central Intelligence, loaded classified information into unsecure computers in his home.

In the case of the missing hard drives at Los Alamos, a total of 86 members of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team had access to the vault in the X division, where the hard drives were stored. Of them, 26 could go in without escorts, and remove the hard drives without signing out or leaving any record that they had taken the material.

Thus, if two of the team members had not discovered the hard drives missing on May 7, when they searched the vault as a forest fire raged near the laboratory, the missing drives might have gone undetected even longer.

These casual security measures are a far cry from the stringent procedures used to monitor nuclear material. The United States protects its nuclear weapons zealously and tracks the plutonium and uranium used to make them as best it can. We try to follow the movement of every gram of nuclear material and to verify its whereabouts continuously. Shouldn’t we start protecting our nuclear information with the same resolve?