Thursday, March 03, 2005

LANL Scientists Say They're Scapegoats

Albuquerque Journal North
Thursday, March 3, 2005

LANL Scientists Say They're Scapegoats

By Adam Rankin
Journal Staff Writer

The two Los Alamos scientists involved in the incident last summer over some missing computer disks that actually never existed say they are being made scapegoats for a broken system safeguarding the nation's top nuclear secrets.

Todd Kauppila and John Horne, both 21-year LANL veterans, say they have taken the brunt of the blame for a human accounting error that wasn't their fault, essentially cutting short their promising careers in nuclear physics experimentation.

The situation is even more painful, they say, because the disks that were never created would not have contained classified information even if they had existed. They said the two disks would have been part of a batch of eight other real disks created to store unclassified information for a fall 2003 slide presentation. For security purposes, they said, the disks are considered classified because they were created on a classified computer.

They say the only reason real disks don't turn up missing regularly, despite convoluted rules and a lack of resources, is because of the incredible integrity and care of the scientists in charge of them.
"I did not violate any rules; I was very careful," Horne, who first received clearance to work with classified information when he was 19 years old, said in a recent interview at his home. "I followed the rules to the letter."

LANL officials say procedures were in place to prevent such mixups but that they weren't followed.
LANL director Pete Nanos has said the scientists at fault seemed to think their work was more important than following procedures and called those few responsible "cowboys" and "buttheads."

"Procedures were in place that should have prevented this from ever happening," LANL spokesman Kevin Roark said.

But it did.

A July 6 inventory showed a discrepancy over two classified disks in the tracking system of the work group Dynamic Experimentation-3, or DX-3, responsible for conducting physics experiments on the behavior of nuclear materials.

Assigned to Horne, a LANL technician working on some of the country's most secret experiments on the dynamics of nuclear explosions, the two disks were entered into a tracking system as if they existed in late 2003 when eight other disks were created.

Horne said in a recent interview that he was given 10 bar codes for tracking classified disks, but only created eight disks. When he turned in the disks to the group's disk custodian, he didn't realize the custodian had entered all 10 bar codes into the accountability database. That error was only discovered about two weeks after the July 6 inventory, Horne and Kauppila said.

Horne said he thinks he shredded the other two bar codes sometime after turning the disks in but can't prove it.


'Ungodly tense' period

An April "wall-to-wall" inventory of classified disks reported the two disks were accounted for, even though they didn't exist. How that happened and who was at fault is unclear, but Horne was assigned to the disks and would have had to produce them for the official conducting the inventory.

When they couldn't be found in July during the next inventory, LANL officials initiated an FBI investigation and then-Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham took the unprecedented step of calling a halt to all classified work across the DOE complex.

Horne described this period of intense scrutiny and investigation as "ungodly tense" and said he spent 18 hours a day, working through weekends, to try to determine the reason for the accounting discrepancy. He passed a lie detector test in November.

Kauppila said LANL investigators searched haphazardly through canyon bottoms and above ceiling tiles instead of rationally thinking through the problem.

Both men say that even though LANL officials learned early on that the disks never existed, the investigations continued because officials needed a scapegoat.

"That's when the finger-pointing began," Kauppila said. "We were convenient targets."
Horne was not fired, but he received a letter of reprimand and 10 days off without pay.

'I was foolish'

A supervisor to Horne, Kauppila said he played only an incidental role in the classified disk accounting mixup but was fired Sept. 23 because he failed to immediately return to LANL from an East Coast family vacation during the investigation.

"I was so collateral to the incident that not in my wildest dreams did I think I would get terminated," he said. "In retrospect, I was foolish."

Both men have filed formal grievances with LANL and say the only reason Horne wasn't fired was because he hired an attorney early in the investigation.

Roark said LANL's policies prevent him from talking about personnel actions and the details of the investigations into Kauppila and Horne.

"All personnel actions were taken following exhaustive inquiries and the actions were taken based solely on the facts that came out of the inquiries. That is all we can say," he said.

Roark said laboratory officials have held two classified-level briefings for all classified-cleared employees on what was discovered during the inquiries, including time lines and what was done and when it was done, except for the names of the people involved.

Last week, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., told reporters that a full accounting of the laboratory's July shutdown would be coming.

Comments:
It is time to pull Mr. Nanos in front of Congress and make
him testify on the record as to what happened. National
security is at stake here. A full, official accounting is
required. And if Mr. Nanos was holding back critical
information on this situation, then serious repercussions
are required. As another poster mentioned, it scares me to
think that Nanos is the fellow who signs off on the annual
security and safety of our nuclear arsenal. And it
should scare Congress, too.
 
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