Sunday, January 30, 2005

FBI: Lab never was missing disks

SANTA FE NEW MEXICAN

By Diana Heil | The New Mexican
January 29, 2005

Case closed: Two classified computer disks thought to be missing at Los Alamos National Laboratory last July never existed, according to FBI and U.S. Department of Energy investigations released Friday.

Lab records showed 12 computer disks were prepared last September for a meeting on experimental radiographic technology. In reality, only 10 disks were created. What happened? Bar codes were put into lab records before the computer disks were created.

The federal report on the investigations adds a footnote : “The forensic evidence does not prove that no other disks were created, only that they need not have been. Taken with the interviews (which involved the use of polygraphs), however, the overall conclusion that the ‘missing’ disks never existed appears well founded.”

Lab employees and Los Alamos residents have known this ­ unofficially ­ for some time.

Meanwhile, lab workers and retirees have watched three people lose their jobs as others lost pay or got demoted. They have watched an inventory snafu led to the confusion.

“Although multiple investigations have confirmed that the ‘missing’ disks never existed, the major weaknesses in controlling classified material revealed by this incident are absolutely unacceptable , and the University of California must be held accountable for them,” NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks said Friday. “Of even greater concern are significant safety weaknesses which came to light at approximately the same time.”

The university could have gotten a base fee of $3.5 million for operating the lab with the rest of the money based on performance.

The lab fared worst in its rating for operations, not getting any of the $2.1 million performance money setaside.

A separate rating for science and technology was “good,” bringing the lab $2.4 million out of a possible $3.1 million.

Brooks, however, thought UC didn’t deserve all of this amount, and he ended up awarding just $2.9 million ­ less than the base amount. “I consider this an appropriate indication of the severity and systemic nature of the problems uncovered at Los Alamos, problems which have already resulted in substantial loss to the government,” he said.

This is the first time NNSA invoked a clause in the UC contract, which allows the government to withhold up to 100 percent of the management fee for failures in safety and security.

“We don’t believe they should have gotten any of the award fee,” said Pete Stockton , director of the Washington , D.C., watchdog group, the Project On Government Oversight . But he said what Brooks did goes in the right direction.

This happened at a time when the university is considering whether to compete to continue running the lab, a job it has held since World War II. The government put Los Alamos lab up for competition because of repeated business, safety and security lapses.

“I think that’s intended as a slap in the face to try to ensure that UC doesn’t bid,” Chuck Mansfield, a retired lab physicist, said.

He said he has more trust in the University of California than in local lab management or the Energy Department.

“The problems are really at the director level,” Mansfield said. “The university is being singled out as the whipping boy, but that’s not where the strokes should be applied.”

The University of California accepted the whipping, though. “We got walloped. Unfortunately, we deserve this,” UC spokesman Chris Harrington said.

He said UC has corrected the root problems, “so we don’t have to take this kind of hit again.”

U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, D-N .M., said the university has done a good job in trying times. “On the other hand, the NNSA has responded to the bad headlines by cutting the university’s award fee unreasonably,” Domenici said. “That willingness to succumb to political pressure reveals to me that the university is doing a better job of standing up to criticism than is the NNSA. I had expected better from the NNSA.”

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