[ISN] Nuke Lab Can't Keep Snoops Out

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Tue Feb 25 2003 - 05:01:43 PST

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    By Noah Shachtman
    Feb. 25, 2003
    LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico -- There are no armed guards to knock out. No 
    sensors to deactivate. No surveillance cameras to cripple. To sneak 
    into Los Alamos National Laboratory, the world's most important 
    nuclear research facility, all you do is step over a few strands of 
    rusted, calf-high barbed wire. 
    I should know. On Saturday morning, I slipped into and out of a 
    top-secret area of the lab while guards sat, unaware, less than a 
    hundred yards away. 
    Despite the nation's heightened terror alert status, despite looming 
    congressional hearings into the lab's mismanagement and slack-jawed 
    security, an untrained person -- armed with only the vaguest sense of 
    the facility's layout and slowed by a torn Achilles tendon -- was able 
    to repeatedly gain access to the birthplace of the atom bomb. 
    "While Los Alamos is praised as a jewel of homeland security, it may 
    actually be one of the country's biggest vulnerabilities," said 
    Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government 
    Oversight, a watchdog organization that's eyed Los Alamos for years. 
    Founded in World War II by a tiny group of scientists and military 
    personnel racing to develop atomic weapons, the lab now has over 
    12,000 employees spread across 2,224 buildings on 43 square miles. 
    These people are involved in a staggering array of endeavors: nuclear 
    bomb design and maintenance, climate studies, supercomputer 
    development, advanced spy-sensor research and more. Managed by the 
    University of California for the Department of Energy, the lab is 
    responsible for six major nuclear weapons systems, including the 
    Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles. 
    My entry into this sprawling complex was New Mexico's State Road 4, 
    which forms the lab's rear border for several miles. Connecting the 
    small, church-filled town of White Rock and the sandstone mesas of the 
    Bandelier National Monument, the road comes within a few feet of some 
    of the lab's most clandestine areas. 
    At these points, 9-foot-high chain-link fences, topped with curled 
    razor wire, keep hikers away from Los Alamos lands. But as Route 4 
    proceeds along LANL property, these imposing barriers drop to trios or 
    quartets of aging barbed wire, the kind of fences used to keep cows 
    from straying off a farm. 
    Eventually, the lab's outer perimeter becomes nothing more than a 
    piece of string. Finally, it turns into nothing at all -- just a 
    yellow No Trespassing sign. 
    "We didn't fence all 43 square miles," said lab spokeswoman Nancy 
    Ambrosiano. "But if you're near an area that matters, you can't get 
    Pulling a rented car onto the road's red gravel shoulder, I stepped 
    over one of the string borders. Then I walked parallel to Route 4 for 
    a few hundred feet until I hit a chain-link fence. 
    I had come to the perimeter of Technical Area 33, one of the 
    facilities Ambrosiano said was "secure." Officially, TA-33 is 
    described only as a "former explosives testing area." According to lab 
    sources, however, TA-33's collection of prefabricated shacks and 
    converted trailers is one of Los Alamos' most secret sections, focused 
    in part on "black," or covert, operations. Nine tons of 
    uranium-contaminated soil was removed from the area in 1999. 
    Imagine my wide-eyed surprise when I saw that the fence surrounding 
    TA-33 ended only a few dozen yards from the road. Heart pounding, I 
    stepped around the perimeter. Stopping at a decrepit barbed-wire fence 
    outlining TA-33's rear, I swung my legs over, one at a time. 
    And I was in. 
    I could see a police-style vehicle with at least one guard in it just 
    a few hundred feet away. But the car's occupants were oblivious to my 
    presence. I strolled up to a silver building. Its windows were open. 
    TA-33, isolated on the lab's southern extremity, has become the 
    epicenter of controversy in recent months. According to a search 
    warrant filed by the FBI, it was here that maintenance managers Peter 
    Bussolini and Scott Alexander allegedly stored tens of thousands of 
    dollars' worth of camping gear and consumer electronics they 
    fraudulently charged to lab accounts. 
    These purchases helped ignite a conflagration of controversy, which 
    was stoked when investigators Steven Doran and Glenn Walp were fired 
    after they shared the results of their inquiries with Energy 
    Department officials. Los Alamos director John Browne was forced to 
    resign shortly thereafter. 
    Now, after 60 years, the University of California's contract to 
    operate Los Alamos on behalf of the Energy Department is being called 
    into question. Congressional hearings into Los Alamos' management 
    begin Wednesday. These inquiries will include "tough questions" about 
    Los Alamos' security, according to the Energy Department. 
    But it will likely take more than tough questions to fix security 
    snafus at the facility. 
    Last summer, on a nighttime stakeout, Doran said he and a team of FBI 
    agents were accidentally locked into the TA-33 complex. Without 
    identifying themselves, they asked a guard to open the gate and let 
    them out. The guard complied without question -- he didn't even ask 
    for an ID. Unfamiliar faces emerging from a top-secret facility late 
    at night was, apparently, not cause for concern. 
    The main entrances to Los Alamos are only marginally better defended 
    than TA-33's back acreage. The military-like guards keeping watch at 
    these points certainly look fierce in camouflage paints and black 
    bulletproof vests. But there's little to back up the image. Their 
    belts have gun holsters, but no guns to fill them. 
    Around facilities like the biology lab, where anthrax and other 
    biotoxins have been handled, no sentries stand guard at all. Nor is 
    there any kind of fence to keep the curious and the malicious away -- 
    not even a piece of string. 
    "Before I got to Los Alamos, I figured it would have at least the 
    (security) level of a military base," Doran said. "Now I know better." 
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