Nuclear nightmare

Posted: Wednesday, June 14, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's edition of The Washington Post:

Guarding the nation's nuclear secrets is about the most basic duty of any administration. The danger of nuclear proliferation is so serious that the United States bombs Iraq, sanctions India and Pakistan and kowtows to North Korea - all in an attempt to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands. That unidentified hands could have quietly removed, at Los Alamos, two computer drives with information on dismantling nuclear bombs is shocking. That it should happen so soon after another lapse had telegraphed the existence of security problems at the same lab is just about incredible.

Some comments emanating from the administration suggest that it is not as shocked as it ought to be. Edward Curran, the Energy Department's chief of counterintelligence, told The Washington Post that though the lapse was serious, ``we shouldn't overreact.'' John Browne, director of the Los Alamos lab, told The New York Times that ``it is premature to call this a security breach.'' Meanwhile Eugene Habiger, the Energy Department's head of security, told Reuters that the classified hard drives were probably misplaced rather than stolen. He defended those with access to them as ``dedicated, loyal Americans,'' who are not suspected of spying.

With luck, the intensive investigation now under way will unearth the lost drives, or somehow yield assurances that they did not fall into the hands of spies or terrorists. But even if that best-case outcome transpires, the fact that some of the most sensitive secrets at Los Alamos have been missing for a month will in itself constitute a serious security breach. Moreover, someone needs to explain why the director of Los Alamos was informed of the lost hard drives only on May 31, more than three weeks after they appear to have gone missing. Why, for that matter, was the FBI not called in to help investigate until just recently? It won't be enough to blame the whole mess on New Mexico's wildfires, or to plead against ``overreaction.''

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