Report: Lax Security at Nuke Labs
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Thousands of scientists, researchers and officials from Russia and China gained access to the three U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories without security background checks, a new congressional report finds.
The General Accounting Office report cited the Department of Energy labs _ Lawrence Livermore in California and the Los Alamos and Sandia laboratories in New Mexico _ for lax security, including an instance in which boxes marked ``sensitive materials″ sat in hallways accessible to the foreign visitors.
Some of the individuals allowed access to the labs were later shown to have ``suspected foreign intelligence connections,″ said the report, obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday. It was set for release today.
``DOE has procedures that require obtaining background checks, but these procedures are not being enforced,″ according to the report by the congressional watchdog agency.
Because of the lack of clear criteria for identifying visits that posed security risks, ``sensitive subjects may have been discussed with foreign nationals without DOE’s knowledge and approval,″ the GAO found.
The report focused on visits in 1994, 1995 and 1996 by citizens of 22 countries on the DOE’s ``sensitive″ list, including Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya.
A total of 5,472 visitors from those 22 countries came to the DOE labs. Only 892 visitors, or 16 percent, were given background checks.
At Los Alamos and Sandia, only 5 percent of foreign visitors from sensitive countries were checked. Visitors from Russia and China made up the bulk of these cases.
The Energy Department agreed with the report’s recommendations and said it is taking extensive steps to improve security. But the department said the GAO report placed too much emphasis on background checks.
The GAO said that only about 5 percent to 10 percent of foreign visitors were allowed into the most tightly guarded areas of the labs where actual weapons work is done. The report did not say whether any foreigners granted such access were from countries on the sensitive list.
But visitors from these sensitive countries did gain access to areas where work can include technologies under government export restriction, unclassified but sensitive information, and valuable equipment.
``Foreign visitors to these laboratories have open, often long-term access to personnel with detailed knowledge and expertise in classified and/or sensitive matters,″ the GAO wrote. ``This situation is viewed by counterintelligence experts as an ideal opportunity for foreign intelligence-gathering efforts.″
FBI counterintelligence officials were particularly concerned about the low percentage of checks on visitors from Russia and China, according to the report.
Of the 1,464 visitors from China, only 199, or 13 percent, were checked. Of the 2,237 visitors from Russia, 451 visitors, or 20 percent, were checked, the GAO auditors said.
The labs, overseen by the Energy Department, conduct research, design and non-explosive testing of nuclear weapons and related components.
They also have branched out into other areas of research such as lasers, high-performance computers, microelectronics, biomedicine and global climate change. These studies have attracted more foreign scientists, researchers and other visitors.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, operated for DOE by the University of California, consists of scores of buildings over a square mile of campus.
Los Alamos, also run by the University of California, extends over 43 square miles of territory north of Santa Fe, N.M.
Sandia, a similarly sprawling complex, is run for DOE by Lockheed Martin Corp.
Among the lax security procedures cited in the report were the accidental release of classified information; rules permitting foreign visitors after-hours access; and sensitive information left in areas accessible to the visitors.
The Energy Department, in a written response to the report, challenged the notion that background checks ensured airtight security.
``There is little likelihood that foreign intelligence services would resort to aggressive, high-risk collection techniques,″ such as sending intelligence officers with traceable backgrounds to the labs on official visits, the department said. Background checks that raised red flags over individuals with intelligence backgrounds might miss the real spies, the department argued.
The report was commissioned by the House National Security Committee in response to a 50 percent increase in the number of foreign visitors to the three nuclear weapons labs from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.
The other countries listed as ``sensitive″ are Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cuba, Georgia, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Moldova, Pakistan, Syria, Taiwan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
The report noted that only one of the nine Iraqis who visited DOE weapons labs was checked. There were 65 visitors from Iran, 11 of whom were checked.