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Wednesday, 14 June, 2000, 20:55 GMT 21:55 UK
CIA chief takes nuclear secrets role
Los Alamos
The laboratory was heavily guarded during the blaze
A senior official with the US Central Intelligence Agency is to head a new nuclear weapons agency in the wake of a security lapse that has sparked a fierce political row.

The appointment of Air Force General John Gordon, now deputy CIA director, comes in the wake of the disappearance of nuclear secrets from the nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos in New Mexico.


Their loss amounts to a security threat I don't think we have faced since the Soviets moved nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba

Senator Ben Knighthorse Campbell

Two computer hard drives were found to be missing from a vault at the laboratory when staff went to retrieve them as a forest fire swept through the area early in May.

Six employees from the nuclear centre have since been suspended while agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation conduct lie detector tests, in what has become a criminal investigation.

In Washington, members of Congress have severely criticised the Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, for refusing to attend a hearing into the disappearance of the computer hard drives.

Safety concerns

Republican senators on the joint intelligence and energy committee hearing also denounced Mr Richardson for not improving security at the laboratory.

Bill Richardson
Richardson: Lambasted for not ensuring security

"We are missing plans so important to the safety of the nation, their loss amounts to a security threat I don't think we have faced since the Soviets moved nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba," said Republican Senator Ben Knighthorse Campbell.

The missing hard drives were reportedly seen in April, were missing in May but not reported as such for a further three weeks.

They contain information about nuclear warheads and are used by a special nuclear bomb squad, whose job it is to respond to any nuclear emergency.

Assurances

Mr Richardson was described by one member of the joint committee of standing "naked on this issue".

Senator Frank Murkowski, who chairs the House committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said the energy secretary made repeatedly given assurances that improved security measures at the lab were protecting America's nuclear secrets.

It has emerged that 28 people at Los Alamos had free access to the vault where the hard drives were stored and did not have to sign material out.

Mr Richardson has agreed to appear before another committee next week.

On Wednesday, the US Senate approved General Gordon as security supremo, an appointment which has been held up by Democrats in a bureaucratic row over his exact role.

Los Alamos was the focus of a year-long controversy in 1999 over alleged security lapses involving a former lab scientist, who has been charged with illegally copying highly classified files and is awaiting trial.

Officials are said to believe there is no link between the charges against him and the disappearance of the hard drives.

One theory is that, in the chaos of the forest fire and its aftermath, the drives have simply been mislaid.

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See also:

13 Jun 00 | Americas
FBI joins nuclear secrets hunt
09 May 00 | Americas
Forest fire shuts nuclear lab
14 May 00 | Americas
Historic atomic site destroyed
13 May 00 | Americas
Fires spread in US
11 May 00 | Americas
Los Alamos evacuated
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