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Published Sunday, August 22, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

Easy access to nuclear secrets

Mercury News Staff Writer

In the 1980s, a time when Los Alamos National Laboratory computer scientist Wen Ho Lee is accused of leaking nuclear secrets to China, Kathie Harine was an obscure researcher working for a Defense Department contractor.

But even as a minor player on the margins of the Cold War -- Harine was working on an environmental impact statement for the MX missile -- she had unexpected access to the intimate secrets of U.S. weapons.

If she had access to such documents, she says now, so did thousands of other people working for the government or defense contractors. ``There are documents all over,'' she said.

Her experience, she said, supports the argument of Robert S. Vrooman, the former chief of counterintelligence at Los Alamos, who last week criticized the government for singling out Lee as China's source of information while ignoring thousands of other people who have had access to nuclear weapons design information.

Vrooman, who faces unspecified disciplinary action for not denying Lee access to secret information after he came under suspicion of espionage, charged that investigators focused on Lee in part because he is Taiwanese-American. Lee was fired from Los Alamos in March, but has not been charged with any crime.

High-level clearance

Harine worked for a government contractor, HDR Sciences, and had a high-level security clearance. Her work in the 1980s on the environmental impact statement took her to the Defense Nuclear Agency archive of classified documents in Santa Barbara.

In the reading room of the archive, she said she unexpectedly found shelves stacked with highly classified monthly reports from the two U.S. nuclear design centers, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Curious, she picked up one of the reports off the shelf and began reading. Then, because she was interested in nuclear weapons, she said she read more and more. According to Harine, the reports were full of what the government calls Classified Nuclear Weapons Design Information.

``They described each (nuclear) test, what the weapons looked like inside,'' Harine said last week from Sacramento, where she lives. The reports, complete with tables and diagrams, included the expected results for a particular nuclear explosion as well as the actual outcome.

One article, Harine said, was written by the well-known physicist Edward Teller and explained in some detail all the major technical advances in nuclear weapons over the years.

When Harine was done with her reading, she knew the insider secrets -- but no one else knew that she knew them. For although she had signed into the reading room each day, there was no paper trail to indicate which documents she had read once she was inside.

It's doubtful, she said, that the FBI or anyone else involved in the highly publicized investigation of Lee has any idea that those highly sensitive documents were ever in Santa Barbara. Anyone with access to the archives, if they chose, could have provided information to China, she said.

A spokesman for the Department of Energy said Friday that no one was available to discuss the situation outlined by Harine.

Lee is suspected of leaking information on the W-88, the thermonuclear explosive for the Trident missile.

Vrooman has told congressional investigators and reporters that classified documents about the W-88 could have been leaked to Chinese agents from hundreds of different locations belonging to the government or private contractors.

One ``rather detailed description of the W-88,'' Vrooman told the Washington Post, was distributed to 548 different addresses at the Defense Department, Energy Department, various defense firms, the armed services and even the National Guard.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee reported this month that neither the FBI nor the security officials of the Department of Energy -- the federal agency that owns the weapons labs -- pursued the widespread availability of crucial nuclear weapons information.

The President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board reached a similar conclusion in June.

`Widely available'

``The information was widely available,'' said Sidney Drell, a Stanford physicist who serves on the advisory board. ``There were manuals for the Department of Defense. They service it; they have to use it. They have to have instructions. You can't just give it to them and say, `Good luck.' ''

``It's wrong to think that there are only five people in the world who know about this weapon and that Wen Ho Lee was one of them.''

In 1995, the Energy Department estimated that it was guarding 280 million pages of classified documents, according to Steven Aftergood, who writes a newsletter called Secrecy and Government for the Federation of American Scientists. ``Department of Defense documents are held in over a thousand locations, worldwide, and there is not a universal index to them.

``The government has a huge records management problem,'' he said. ``Documents get lost, they get misplaced, on a huge basis.''

Harine, the scientist who found the documents in Santa Barbara, went on to work for Lockheed Missile & Space in Sunnyvale. One of the documents she came across there was a ``classification guide'' for the W-88, a book that spells out what employees may legally say about various aspects of the warhead -- and to whom.

``Interestingly, those guides have a great deal of detail on the actual warhead design,'' she said. ``And those get distributed widely. I saw those at Lockheed, and they had all the information anyone would need.''

Informative monthly reports

But the most informative documents of those she read, Harine said, were the monthly reports from Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore. On that point, she has agreement from Ray Kidder, a senior nuclear physicist at Lawrence Livermore who has dozens of editions of Research Monthly -- the Livermore publication -- locked in his office safe.

``I've always thought that if anybody wanted to know all about nuclear weapons, all they'd have to do is get hold of these Research Monthlys,'' he said. ``That's what I did, because it's the best source that exists.''

Each edition, he said, would usually explain the design progress of a particular weapon, with ``details and a lot of information about what problems people had and how they fixed them. A gold mine would be worthless by comparison.''

The distribution list for Research Monthly was several pages long, he said. Numerous copies went to the Pentagon, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Defense Nuclear Agency, the National Security Agency, individual military officers, the nuclear weapons production facilities, the military services and defense contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed and ``all of the missile outfits.''

The distribution list has several hundred addresses on it, Kidder said. Each copy has an individual tracking number on it, and is supposed to be tracked virtually forever, unless it is destroyed.

``I would ask the question, `Have you had an accounting, and how many of them are unaccounted for?' '' Kidder said.

Contact Dan Stober at or (408) 271-3730.

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