http://www.wired.com/news/conflict/0,2100,57792,00.html 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 in." 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." - ISN is currently hosted by Attrition.org To unsubscribe email majordomoat_private with 'unsubscribe isn' in the BODY of the mail.
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