A Breach in Nuclear Security

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Joe Raedle / Getty

Signs are posted on the gated wall around the main technical area of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

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?"

TIME has also obtained the report of a task force set up by Energy Secretary Bodman to examine some of the security issues in his department. Given the stakes involved in protecting nuclear secrets in a post-9/11 world, the report makes uncomfortable reading: It details not only more extensive drug use among staff at Los Alamos, but describes a systematic lack of accountability and weaknesses in the safeguards surrounding nuclear secrets.

Jessica Quintana, the woman who lived in the trailer, went to work as an archivist at Los Alamos at age 18, right out of high school. Accounts seen by TIME of the investigation that followed her arrest reveal that even before taking the job, she "self-reported acts of drug and alcohol abuse" in high school. By her own admission, she was using drugs (marijuana) and drinking while underage even during the period of her security screening. But after promising to stop taking drugs (although not alcohol), and signing a written pledge to submit to drug testing, she received a clearance to handle some of America's most sensitive secrets. Despite the pledge, follow-up drug tests were "never performed," a government document says, even as Quintana proceeded to commit multiple security violations with little supervision from the lab's security administrators.

It was only after several years on the job that she was caught with bomb designs in her trailer and fired. But the investigation reveals that Quintana had taken her cell phone into a vault filled with secret documents where she worked — another major security violation. She also had access to a high-speed classified printer, even though such access was "not required by her job," and used the device to run off hundreds of copies of classified documents that she also brought home. The young woman received inadequate supervision — government documents show that the security administrator responsible for Quintana's area was not around roughly half the time, because that person had "other duties." Quintana's lawyer, Stephen Aaron, told TIME that, on occasion, she would be locked into a secure vault to work until colleagues returned. "We hope that the lessons learned from this episode can be used to make the Lab more secure in the future," he added.

Quintana's motive for breaching the rules appears to have been benign: Falling behind on her work scanning paper copies of nuclear-weapons designs into a digital format, she would save highly classified documents onto a "thumb drive" and then take the material home to work on after hours, she has said. The practice of inserting thumb drives was specifically forbidden by then DOE secretary Bill Richardson in 1999, but was apparently not uncommon at Los Alamos. Using thumb drives, and at least one wireless (WIFI) device that was improperly in the secure area, it would have been possible to transfer secret material from classified computers to non-classifed computers, a process known as "migration." Since the discovery of Quintana's breach last fall, computer ports have been plugged with glue to prevent thumb drives being inserted.

Secretary Bodman's task force report shows, however, that security problems were not limited to Quintana or Los Alamos. Investigators examined more than 450 security clearances issued over 12 months beginning in June 2001, the period in which Quintana had been under review, and found two other cases in which clearances were granted to people with "indications of prior drug use within the month prior to the clearance being granted." A further 35 cases involved drug use within the year prior to requesting a security clearance.

Following its internal investigation, the DOE is proposing sweeping changes in security procedures and the issuance of clearances — and not just at Los Alamos. The report indicates that for the first time after years of security snafus, "any proven or admitted drug involvement within the past 12 months" will be cause for "termination" of a security-clearance application. Other steps to tighten, centralize and refine security procedures and drug tests will also be implemented.

Secretary Bodman, who will testify Friday April 20 before a congressional oversight subcommittee on security issues, has already taken a number of steps of his own to deal with the problem. He not only commissioned the task force report and reviewed the results of a DOE inspector general investigation, but in January fired the department's top official in charge of nuclear security in response to the latest Los Alamos and earlier incidents. As Bodman put it: "Unauthorized removal of the classified material from the Lab marks a significant breach of security protocol and of the public trust. Unfortunately, we cannot correct the errors of the past. But we will learn from this incident and we will do better."