With Leaks Like These, Who Needs Spies?

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Wen Ho Lee may not be as big a threat as we thought. After all, what difference does it make if a physicist here and there downloads sensitive documents, when any Joe can walk into the National Archives and access America's nuclear secrets? At least that seems to be the case after an Energy Department report to Congress Thursday revealed that nearly 15,000 pages of nuclear secrets dating as far back as the 1940s were mistakenly declassified and made public. Much of it isn't directly related to weapons design — it contains such data as the impact recorded from detonations and data on some models that were never used. Still, it's a big deal.

"Generally we don't see the release of anything related to warhead design," says TIME Washington correspondent Mark Thompson. "Any bit of information we have on the properties of a warhead could be useful to other countries in developing their own arsenals, even if the information seems arcane." And it's a major embarrassment for a bureaucracy still reeling from revelations that China obtained the designs of the U.S.'s "top secret" W-88 nuclear warhead. In this case, though, it appears that the Energy Department, the government agency criticized for allowing the transfer of classified information to China, may be the hero of the hour — it was DOE agents who spotted the mistake.

In fact, the discovery has presented the beleaguered head of the department, Bill Richardson, with an opportunity to go on the offensive. In a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, Richardson wrote: "None of these releases were made by the Department of Energy, but with my statutory responsibility under the Atomic Energy Act, I have taken swift action to reduce the risk of further inadvertent releases." That action includes training 860 "declassification officials" in other federal agencies and assigning 15 Energy Department auditors to the pool that reviews the archived data. One thing's for sure: Somebody had better plug these leaks before disgruntled teens can check the blueprints to the A-bomb out of their local library.