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At labs, tighter security poses security threat

A new report says threat of prosecution makes Los Alamos scientists afraid to admit even minor security breaches.

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For months, America's nuclear-weapons scientists have fretted that a vise-grip crackdown on security is impeding their ability to work and turning their labs and offices into a police zone.

Now, in what might be a morale boost for the scientists, voices from outside the cloistered world of nuclear-weapons labs are giving credence to these complaints.

Two former congressmen, sizing up the current situation at the beleaguered Los Alamos National Weapons Laboratory in New Mexico, have concluded that tightened security - and especially the threat of criminal prosecution for minor lapses - pose a greater risk to national security than does the possible loss of nuclear secrets themselves.

Their report, prepared at the request of the US Department of Energy (DOE) and released yesterday, says fear of criminal prosecution is creating a climate in which scientists are afraid to admit to even minor security infractions and therefore refuse to cooperate with investigators.

"Once issues of management oversight give way to criminal investigation, and lab employees fear that committing a security error may expose them not just to management discipline but to prosecution and imprisonment, any hope that individuals will volunteer information that could reflect security lapses is annihilated," says the report by former Sen. Howard Baker (R) of Tennessee and Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana.

The report may have the indirect effect of forcing the DOE to consider whether recent concerns about US nuclear security have been overwrought. The DOE dispatched the bipartisan duo to Los Alamos - birthplace of the atomic bomb - after two computer hard drives containing sensitive information were lost last spring and then, mysteriously, found 16 days later at the lab.

Jim Danneskiold, a lab spokesman, says the Baker-Hamilton report reflects what employees have been saying: "If you believe that by reporting a security violation you're subject to a criminal investigation, then you'll think twice about reporting."

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