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Holding the Government Accountable

From One Lab to Another: Los Alamos Info Breach and Meth Trailer Story Develops

What we knew last week is worrisome enough: A contract employee at Los Alamos National Laboratory was given access to highly sensitive information and was able to get it past security.

But, according to an insider's summary of a government briefing (pdf) of the current investigation obtained by Nuclear Watch of New Mexico and independently confirmed by POGO, it's even worse. New information received by POGO suggests that the classified information breach exposed in a meth lab drug bust last week may be the most serious breach for Los Alamos National Laboratory since the Rosenbergs.

The insider's briefing states that at least three USB thumb drives were seized during the drug bust containing a total of 408 separate classified documents that ranged from Secret-National Security Information (pertaining to intelligence) to Secret-Restricted Data (pertaining to nuclear weapons). All of the documents originated from the classified document/classified video media vault located in the DX (now HX) Division Headquarters building at TA-8-21-143. Hard copies of classified documents totaling 228 separate pages printed front and back were also found in the trailer, which was reported by the Los Angeles Times yesterday.

The woman involved, Jessica Quintana, turned out to have worked in a total of three classified vaults or vault-type rooms across Los Alamos National Laboratory: Safeguards and Security Division (documents concerning the strategic nuclear material control and accountability program) in X-Division, and in Physics (P) division. According to the briefing obtained by Nuclear Watch, she also had a Sigma 15 identifier to her Q-clearance. Sigma 14 and 15 information is the most sensitive information in the nuclear weapons complex because it describes how to bypass the locks which prevent unauthorized individuals from detonating a nuclear weapon—known as the permissive actions links.

She was not on the periodic urinary drug-testing program or in the Human Reliability Program because one of the primary criteria for the program is that the individual work with weapons-grade and weapons-quantity Special Nuclear Material, the briefing states.

The woman had worked off and on at Los Alamos since 2000 when she was in college as an undergraduate. Her job as a subcontractor was terminated because the Los Alamos contract to archive information ended last month.

In regards to the latest Los Alamos information security flap, POGO agrees with commentators like John Fleck that speculation, hype and the like should be minimized at all costs and everyone should take a deep breath, evaluate the facts that we know and have a measured sense of perspective. However, that said, the incident and its implications cannot be minimized. And with the newest information we've received, this story is worse than we originally thought.

At this point, we do not know if there are any truly nefarious reasons (e.g. espionage) the three USB flash drives had been taken out of Los Alamos' control and had made their way into Jessica Quintana's trailer and alleged meth dealer Justin Stone's possession. Besides the FBI, the CIA and Britain's MI6 (the UK's intelligence service that operates abroad) are reportedly investigating. This indicates that our government and Britain's are taking this incident very seriously and are prudently exploring the possibility that foreign powers could be involved.

On Wednesday, we revealed an email (pdf) to officials DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration indicating that they had received phone calls from Robin Pitman of the British Embassy about a news report indicating that British intelligence was concerned that their nuclear secrets may have been on those flash drives and were compromised.

Even if the flash drives were taken off of the Los Alamos National Laboratory's site for reasons other than espionage (or for any reason at all), the incident is still highly troubling: It suggests that, despite years of bungling and the critical media and Congressional scrutiny generated as a result, Los Alamos, the keeper of many of America's—and other nations'—most sensitive nuclear and intelligence secrets still has not resolved serious problems with its information security.

Los Alamos and the National Nuclear Security Administration are struggling with how to prevent a future scenario like this.

As with anything, there can never be absolute 100% guaranteed security. But, in light of the ease that an insider with access could download and slip past security with classified information on flash drives or other kinds of transportable media, POGO has argued since 2001 that Los Alamos and the rest of the nuclear weapons complex go media-less immediately. This would be accomplished by removing the capacity of classified computers to copy data onto disks or flash drives of any kind. We hear that Los Alamos is very slowing making strides in this direction, but apparently they haven't been fast enough.