April 8, 1999
JIM LEHRER: But that brings us tonight to a Spencer Michels report on secret-keeping at one of the nuclear weapons labs where the alleged Chinese espionage occurred.
SPENCER MICHELS: Group Leader Geoff Reeves works on classified space science projects at Los Alamos. He must show his badge and submit to an identity check of his palm in order to enter the secure section of his lab. Since last month's firing of a fellow worker suspected of compromising nuclear secrets, Reeves says many workers here are nervous.
GEOFF REEVES, Space Scientist: Whenever there is something like this that happens, especially something that's very political, I mean, you never know how is the working environment going to change, what sort of new rules and regulations are going to come down.
SPENCER MICHELS: Reeves is one of 10,000 people who work at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the mountains of New Mexico. This is one of just three national labs that were set up to design nuclear weapons, and study how explosions work. (Explosion) It was here that scientists gathered in the 1940's to develop the atomic bomb, an undertaking so secret that the town of Los Alamos did not appear on any maps, and babies born here had a Santa Fe Post Office Box listed on their birth certificates. Terry Hawkins, who heads the nonproliferation and international security division, says security was incredibly tight back then.
TERRY HAWKINS: We had people's mail being taken out of the post office and read by military officers, censoring the mail. People could not leave the hill here without getting permission from a military security officer. Their travels even inside the Continental United States were very tightly controlled-- who they could contact and so forth.
SPENCER MICHELS: Yet with all that security -
TERRY HAWKINS: With all of that security, people that we had relied on, that we had trusted, that we had given security checks, still for their own purposes violated the trust that we placed in them, and committed espionage. No system is absolutely perfect.
SPENCER MICHELS: German-born spy Klaus Fuchs, who worked at Los Alamos, passed atomic secrets to the Russians, and after detection, served nine years in prison. More than 50 years later, just how much security is enough still is an issue at Los Alamos.
MAN: Have a good day.
OTHER MAN: You too.
SPENCER MICHELS: Unlike the 40's, today much of the lab site-- 43 square miles -- is open to anyone driving through. The sections where secret work is done are carefully guarded, and surrounded by fences. This is the plutonium facility, heavily protected by sensors and alarms. But cries to tighten up security at Los Alamos have followed a disturbing disclosure. Taiwanese-born scientist Wen Ho Lee was suspected of giving information about the miniaturized nuclear warheads he worked on to the Chinese. Lee has not been arrested. Many say in today's scientific world, with frequent international meetings and instant worldwide communication via E-mail, perhaps secrets just slipped out. But Lab Director John Browne, shown here briefing President Clinton on computer technology, said he believed this was not a case of inadvertent release information.
JOHN BROWNE, Los Alamos Lab Director: I would say what we're dealing with in this case though is not that type of situation, not an inadvertent slip of information. I think it was more an act of someone trying to specifically provide information.
SPENCER MICHELS: The Lee case is not the only concern at Los Alamos. In March, the Department of Energy, which runs the lab with the University of California, rated security at the facility as marginal, as opposed to satisfactory. The report raised concerns about protecting secrets in DOE computers and on the Internet, and said new guidelines and better protection measures are being developed. But scientists with security clearances, like Geoff Reeves, say it really comes down to a matter of trust.
GEOFF REEVES: I can pick up the telephone and, if I wanted to, I could tell people classified information over the telephone, I could send classified information over the E-mail. It relies on the employees, guys like me, knowing, you know, what isn't okay to send out there. And it's the same with the Web.
SPENCER MICHELS: Before being trusted, employees must undergo intensive background checks. Terry Hawkins says they begin by suspecting everyone who works here.
TERRY HAWKINS: Your background is completely scrubbed. Your neighbors are talked to. They find out what kind of person you are, and the clearance level is based on what kind of work you're expected to do when you come here, so that you establish what we call a need to know.
SPENCER MICHELS: Still, Hawkins says lab security includes some monitoring, though it's not routine. Are you going to monitor somebody's telephone calls out of here?
TERRY HAWKINS: Well, we do that already.
SPENCER MICHELS: You do?
TERRY HAWKINS: Yes.
SPENCER MICHELS: How many?
TERRY HAWKINS: Not 100 percent, but certainly you do it in terms of a percentage of communications.
SPOKESMAN: For SGF, we want something long and cylindrical.
SPENCER MICHELS: Another area of concern is the frequent visits to Los Alamos by visiting scientists. Hundreds of Russians and a lesser number of Chinese have come in, many to learn security techniques for protecting nuclear weapons and materials, like plutonium, from thieves and terrorists. John Shaner, a shock wave physicist, directs the Center for International Security Affairs at Los Alamos.
JOHN SHANER, International Security Affairs Director: Well, in terms of the visits, they're very carefully controlled and orchestrated. Of course these people, except on extremely rare circumstances, are not allowed into classified areas. And even if they are allowed into classified areas, the tour is very carefully orchestrated.
SPENCER MICHELS: With foreign visitors like this recent Chinese delegation, lab officials say they are extremely careful.
JOHN SHANER: We have to assume because of where they come from that anything that they see, anything that they learn becomes part of that country's intelligence background. It almost doesn't matter if they are spies or not. We have to assume they all are.
SPENCER MICHELS: You say they'll be debriefed at home.
JOHN SHANER: Absolutely. That's not a voluntary procedure in China and Russia.
SPENCER MICHELS: But some have charged that even with precautions, because of the large amount of classified information, including some stored in this super computer, there is a potential for problems in exchanges among scientists. Shaner says that's why everything shared is inspected by higher-ups first.
SPENCER MICHELS: Is it possible that some of the information gleaned on one of these trips could be used eventually for some other purpose, like nuclear weapons?
JOHN SHANER: We have very careful scrutiny of our -- the materials that we discuss in these kinds of meetings, especially with the Chinese. The view graphs, the discussion topics go back, and they're looked at by an interagency group in Washington well before the actual discussions.
CHRIS MECHELS, Former Lab Worker: One of the things I found most interesting about this Motorola report, which of course came out in 1992, was that it wasn't very complimentary to the laboratory.
SPENCER MICHELS: The lab's assurances of tight security don't convince retired Los Alamos computer systems analyst Chris Mechels. Active in an employee rights group which is often critical of lab management, Mechels charges that security has never been taken seriously, especially the need-to-know requirement.
CHRIS MECHELS: I've gone over and sat down and watched movies which are simulated actions of thermonuclear devices. I had no need to know any of that. I mean, basically if you're a technical staff member at Los Alamos, and you therefore have a security clearance, the need to know is not held to at all.
SPENCER MICHELS: Mechels points to government documents, including some Government Accounting Office reports, to back his case. He charges that foreign visitors are often unsupervised, that badges are often not worn, and that the attitude at the lab toward security is "profound arrogance."
CHRIS MECHELS: The attitude of Los Alamos toward Department of Energy oversight is "we'll do that if it makes sense, and if it doesn't, we're not going to do it."
GEOFF REEVES: It doesn't sound like he worked at the same laboratory as I have.
SPENCER MICHELS: Reeves believes that security here is tight and effective, but that it guards against inadvertent leaks, not intentional ones.
GEOFF REEVES: I don't know how you guard against somebody that willfully and maliciously wants to give away U.S. secrets. If somebody wants to do that, aside from chaining them in their office and not having any telephones or faxes or anything, I don't know how you do that.
SPENCER MICHELS: Like Reeves, Former Los Alamos Scientist George Cowan fears that calls for tighter security could severely hurt the scientific work done at the lab. Cowan worked there for 45 years, starting in 1945. He is a founder of the Santa Fe Institute, a think tank.
GEORGE COWAN, Santa Fe Institute: I think that openness is the life blood of good science, and without it, science withers. And I think there are dangers in openness, but the advantages outweigh that. I think that there are many examples of closed societies, which have simply withered. And Russia is an example. This country is an open society. It pays the price of being an open society, but its strengths are derived from its openness.
SPENCER MICHELS: John Browne, the current lab director, agrees.
JOHN BROWNE: National security has to come first, and I think it can. But we don't want to isolate either Los Alamos or other institutions from these interactions, because in the end, I think national security will be hurt even more by us not engaging with the scientific community internationally, because our capabilities will atrophy, and we won't even understand what's going on in the rest of the world.
SPENCER MICHELS: Nevertheless, the Department of Energy has ordered a suspension of all classified computing activities at Los Alamos and Sandia Labs in New Mexico, and Lawrence Livermore Lab in California. Security measures will be reviewed, including the potential transfer of information from secure computers to portable computer disks. Meanwhile, scientists will stop working and attend training sessions until the secretary of energy is satisfied that security has improved.