Peter, the Bayou Renaissance Man, along with a fairly good sized chunk of the rest of the nation, has noticed that Los Alamos National Labs has once again done screwed up (article courtesy of him). To people outside the town, and frankly to a good number here too, these ongoing security problems boggle the mind. How could we go from developing the bomb in near total secrecy to this current shoddy state of affairs where classified material can be found in meth labs?
If you’re one of the people asking those questions, I think the most accurate response is another question: Mister, you’re not from around here, are you?
I suppose it’s probably best to start with the basics. Los Alamos, and its detached suburb White Rock, holds around 20,000 people, give or take a few thousand. Roughly eight or nine thou live in White Rock, with the rest “on the hill.” That’s not the smallest small town in America by any stretch, but I think it’s a safe bet to say it’s the smallest small town that could manufacture the capacity to destroy all life on this planet. We have more PhDs per square mile than any other place on earth, including MIT. The town itself is very small, roughly 100 square miles, much of which is mountain-goat steep. Locals joke that the only way our high school football team can advance the ball is to put it on the field and just let it roll end over end towards the goal post. There isn’t a whole lot of land that’s suitable to build housing on, and that’s reflected in the local market for such. Surrounded by federal land such as Bandelier National Monument, the huge tracts of acreage that LANL occupies, and the Indian Reservations, we don’t have much in the way of expansion options either. That means you have to actually want to live here to find a place and stay in it.
I’m going to be quoting a good bit from this account. Some parts of it are rather out of date (it was written in 1994, and $diety help me, I actually knew the cheerleaders in the pictures there), but a great deal of it is accurate. Especially things like
Before I showed up, I figured the town and the lab would contain a random sampling of the technical elite. That was true during World War II when the lab sucked in every available physicist and engineer in the nation. I hadn’t been there long before I realized that a process of self selection obtains here. Consider the thoughts of a graduating PhD physicist.
“Let’s see… I’ve got my PhD and I want to move to a state where I’ll be left alone. That means Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, or Wyoming. I don’t want to have to talk to students so that rules out universities. Maybe I could even find a job where it would be illegal for me to talk to more than 1000 other people worldwide. Say, that pretty much narrows it down to Los Alamos.”
That part is still fairly accurate, and the type of person that follows that thought process is a non-trivial factor in why anywhere else in the state people automatically look at you with some suspicion when you mention you’re from Los Alamos. Many teens leaving the town for college at either UNM or NMSU simply claim to be from Santa Fe, or even Espanola when their classmates ask where they’re from.
To be fair, yes, we are a weird town- and though this is pretty roundabout, I’m working on including that in the “how this happens” thing. A while back LabRat and I were at a cigar club in Santa Fe, shooting the breeze and generally enjoying a night out off the hill, since Los Alamos has less nightlife than McMurdo Station*. While there, we met a pair of tourists who were spending the summer in Santa Fe, and who were flat incredulous to meet people who actually lived with those weirdos. Apparently they had been told that the camping in the Jemez mountains and Bandelier was not to be missed. They got some (bad) thumbnail directions, and set off towards the mountains. After first getting over their shock that there was no store in town carrying even budget camping supplies (“You guys don’t even have a Wal-Mart! We had to drive another 40 minutes each way to get sleeping bags!”), they returned to the hill and set about trying to find the mountains. Apparently the big rocky pointy things off over n’yah were too subtle for them. At any rate, when they entered town, they did so with a broken tail light. Then they noticed someone seemed to be following them. At first, they said they shrugged it off, but when it eventually became clear that they really were being followed, they got understandably nervous. A few random “can we shake this guy?” turns later, they stopped, grabbed camp shovels from their back seat, and got out to ask the stranger just WTF. As it turns out, yes, he was following them. Why? To tell them about the broken tail light. The cops up here will ticket you for that, y’know (and they will, too. Just sayin’.). I will readily admit that is not the kind of behavior you see just about anywhere else these days.
Ok, so we’re weird as hell. Does that alone explain the security problems? A bunch of “leave me the hell alone, I’m working here” physicists who just don’t want to interact with others? Yes and no. A good number of infractions are, in fact, a direct result of some conehead (our local semi-but-not-really affectionate term for the PhDs who walk around wearing Velcro sandals with black socks and shorts, etc) essentially coming to the conclusion that the administrative processes in place around classified materials don’t apply to him or her because they’re so good at what they do, etc. The deeper cause, though, is that they’re not One Of Us.
To my eye, there have been two incidents with the most impact to security, and the sometimes flawed execution thereof at Los Alamos National Labs. The first is the fall of the Berlin Wall. Before 1989, the atmosphere in this town was very different. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, as it was even impressed on kids such as myself, knew that the purpose of Los Alamos was to make sure we could nuke harder than the commies. End of discussion. Yeah, there’ll be some useful science spinning off from that mission, and that’s cool and we want to encourage that, but keep your eye on that glowing blue prize there, bucko. Good men and women in many fields came to Los Alamos with that in mind, and with the understanding that global annihilation of mankind was a very real possibility of failure to have a convincing deterrent. In the very first days of Los Alamos, the threat was different, but the weight of the duty was still high. Basically, until the Berlin Wall fell, the consequences of fucking up were pretty damn dire. The exception in this was the period immediately after World War II ended, when we had our first, and arguably most severe, security leak courtesy of the Rosenbergs. A slack time without a life-or-death mission bred complacency. The same took root after the wall fell, when the threat of the USSR getting pissy largely went away.
The second major event follows as a direct result of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As with the post-war scenario, the workload was still here, but with considerably less “do or die” mentality. Again, this led to relaxation and sloppiness. Also during this time, the lab underwent a large reduction in force. A large number of very dedicated cold warriors took the early retirement incentive package, and went on about their business. A whole hell of a lot of those folks were One Of Us.
On one of my summer mountain bike excursions, I stopped to talk with a woman who lived in White Rock, a satellite town of 8,000 that makes Los Alamos look positively cosmopolitan. Now that her kids were grown, didn’t she mind living in White Rock with just her husband?
“Oh, we moved here a couple of years ago because we like the outdoors and the West. White Rock is great. Of course, you recognize everyone because you see them every day at the Lab or in the supermarket, but people create their own sense of privacy by not saying `hello’ even if they’ve seen you a hundred times before.”
This is simultaneously dead-on accurate, and flagrant bullshit. Now as I’ve sprinkled in the term One Of Us through this, I hope the three of you still reading have been getting appropriate choruses of “Gooble gobble” when I use it. For someone just moving to this town, such as the PhD who wants to be left alone to his work, other people are basically very complicated Eliza programs. For the people who like the work, but want to live in Santa Fe, social lives follow more traditional routes with dinner parties, normal gossip, and all the petty bullshit associated therewith. There is a third group though. This is a group that by and large doesn’t need the “dinner invitation every night as I did back in Boston.”
“I had lots of friends back in New Jersey. But I’ve been here for two years and people don’t really even meet my eye on the street,” was a typical lament.
Two years, huh? I think I see your problem there, slick. See, Los Alamos is by no means the birthplace of the Good Ol’ Boys network, but by gawd did we take a run at getting it up and working here. By and large, it was wildly successful. The average leave-me-alone physicist will probably rotate out for another lab, or a university position fairly (relatively) soon. No point getting to know a short timer, right? This third group of course has the normal career, family, and to a degree social concerns as anybody else. But this group also just plain fundamentally loves Los Alamos, and all its bizarre quirks. You don’t have to have been here for multiple generations, but it helps. Some people, the town sticks on ‘em, and they successfully become One Of Us in fairly short order. It’s not common, but it certainly happens. On the other hand, this also tends to attract the posers. The folks who see the obvious advantage to membership in the good ol’ boys, but they’re still mostly just looking for their Nobel ticket (or field equivalent). So far this probably sounds a bit like a judicial definition of pornography – I can’t tell you what it is, but I’ll know it when I see it. Let me give you an example.
When I was growing up, right around the start of my teenage years, I of course did something stupid. I don’t remember what it was, specifically, just that it was the sort of thing I didn’t want mom and dad to find out about. Being the ever-wise youth, I simply wrote off the observers as people I didn’t know, and hadn’t seen around my parents. A few days later, I found myself in water rather warmer than expected seeing as how there were no witnesses of note. Well, it turns out that someone who knew my grandmother’s second husband saw me, and mentioned it to the barber. The next day when said husband was in for a trim, the news passed along to him. From there to granny, to dad, to my suddenly sore backside. A day or two later, my entire local family was in one room for some trivial occasion. Mom, dad, grandmothers on both sides, and step-grandad on dad’s side. I think if my maternal grandfather hand been there, what follows would have been an even more complete humiliation. At any rate, I was still irate over being caught by such a loose net and made an indignant remark along the lines of “I can’t do anything. The five of you know every person in this town!”
Nobody objected in the slightest to this notion. Naturally, I took umbrage with such social-networking arrogance and called them on it.
“Oh yeah? You all know everybody? Fine! Let’s see!” I grabbed the local phone book and flipped open to a random page. “Jack House!”
“He’s in the car club. He’s got a ’65 Vette,” my Dad replied.
“Lucky shot. Stephanie Hafer!”
“We both worked as secretaries when it was still the Zia Company providing staffing,” offered my grandmother.
“Coincidence! Richard Lebeda!”
“He was my lasers instructor at the UNM branch,” Mom told me. It continued in this vein for a good ten minutes. They didn’t miss a single name. Some might suppose that they were just making up these details to keep a step ahead of the kid, but having watched my family in action in this town for as long as I have, I’m gonna go ahead and take their word for it.
Back to security, a lot of people who were in this known-to-all group took that early retirement. Being that familiar with each other, even if socialization was not of the type considered normal everywhere else (remember, I already copped that we’re weird here), they were really just that familiar with who was who, who needed access to what, and whether so and so was allowed to see such and such. There were formal rules in place for all this, of course, and the clearance system was (and is) still overseen by the FBI for background checks and the like, but with everybody this familiar with everybody else, some rules could be bent a little here and there. Forget to take the battery out of your phone in the classified area? Well, if it’s that new guy from Jersey that spends every night in Santa Fe even though he lives here, better write him up. Oh, it was just Frank? Give him some shit about it and don’t mention it. Obviously this is flawed from a strict security standpoint. There are copious examples of spies building the sort of confidence and trust necessary to gain access to these “I knew his pappy when his pappy was a punk” environments. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly possible, and I’m sure that it happened a few times here too. Only the fact that the history of this town is so relatively short, and so many of these folks truly were multi-generational inhabitants to really know “Yes, Ralph is ok” offered any extra layer of protection. The formal rules of course helped, but iron-clad and inflexible is almost as bad as too loose and sloppy. I won’t roll this into anything about zero tolerance policies, because even now things don’t work that way here. They’re closer to it, but there’s still some small degree of discretion.
Unfortunately, there are fewer people in positions to exercise that discretion who actually have the local knowledge to do so. The folks who saw the network and wanted to gain the advantages it brought were playing along well enough to get a bit of clout, even though they couldn’t recite the local family trees. That brings us to the second major come-to-Jesus incident for lab security, Wen Ho Lee.
Between the wall falling and Mr. Lee’s actions** security was going on more or less as usual. The strict rules were enshrined and in place, though bent with increasingly questionable judgement by the nouveaux good ol’ boys. Classified got a little fast and loose with “Well, normally I wouldn’t, but the Russkies don’t care anymore, so what the hell.” I exaggerate some, but not as much as you’d probably like. So eventually Mr. Lee comes along and with improper GOB oversight gets his red-badged*** hands into all sorts of things, and moves them hither and yon whence their movement is not blessed. The resulting situation is basically a clusterfuck all around, and going into what all went wrong and what went right and so forth is worth a few thousand words of its own. The main result though was to expose just how much vouching and rule bending was going on – obviously way too much.
This freaked seven shades of shit out of lab management, and rightly so. There were work stoppages, and more than a few points where it looked like the lights would be shut off by the end of the month. Management vowed to concentrate on security and clean this mess up. The slow but steady stream of incidents like the recent missing laptops is mostly because of this. Partly, Los Alamos is under greater national scrutiny. We’re the Big Lab in terms of public recognition, so similar incidents at Lawrence Livermore or Sandia don’t get covered as much (and they have had their share as bad as some of the ones reported here, they just didn’t get the press). Blaming it all on that, however, ignores some other, bigger problems. The Good Ol Boys, for their part, have closed ranks. If a rule is bent in this little cabal now, it is only for the sort of person so trusted that even if it does turn out he’s a spy, he’d better hope China is a lot bigger than anybody said. Either that or find transport off-planet post haste. The new breed, however, is confused. Not having actually assimilated, they didn’t notice the old guard growing tight lipped and taking their badges off when leaving lab property**** and more or less kept on keeping on. Rules were bent a little too much for folks they shouldn’t have been bent for. The cantankerous physicists now came into their role as an exacerbating factor.
It’s a fair piece easier to spot someone who’s obsessed with his work and doesn’t give a damn about that bothersome Eliza that keeps nattering at it than it is to vet the new guy. The scientists, for their part, are of the mindset that information largely should be free and distributed far and wide. Now combine the guy who wants to keep working after he goes home***** with the guy who’s inclined to bend the rules so he can fit in better, and you’ve got the incident with missing classified removable electronic media. I don’t want to get too far into the realm of tinfoil hattery, but the way it went down outside the CNN stories, well… there was a definite air of “I’m looking! I’m looking! I know I put it in my left desk drawer because it was Thursday and then I ….” to the whole thing.
On top of that, the lab has been changing management. Repeatedly. We’ve been through a small handful of directors, and the overseeing body is no longer the University of California. Each change there brings with it a new pack of “We know best!” outsiders for the management side of the house. Each cycle through, something turns up missing. Or misfiled. Or maybe in a meth lab. Los Alamos National Lab is a multi-billion dollar organization, and that equates to one metric assload of red tape to keep everything running. For the scientist trying to get what he or she needs, they do try to make it fairly transparent, but other departments, and the management for those science divisions still have to balance books. People are people, and mistakes do happen. Ain’t reality a bitch?
So there you have it. 67 missing laptops, and a Blackberry in a “sensitive foreign country?” For starters, given the inherent trouble in keeping precise track of several thousand computers, mobile and stationary, I’d bet a fair sum that a good number of those turn up in a spare-parts closet with a note “Enter these into the system soon!” For seconds, I consider it a pretty good improvement that the biggest worry with these is private personal information. Identity theft, or nuclear secrets? The lab is far from perfect, and there are a boatload of reasons that things like this keep happening. It’s somewhat depressing to realize that no matter what, they will also continue to happen. This town has its own unique culture that contributes a lot to the security picture that simply isn’t visible from a CNN story, or a watchdog group. Sometimes those contributions are helpful and appropriate. Sometimes they do need a second look and improvement. But we’re weird here. This is how we do things. We try our damndest to do the best job we possibly can, and sometimes that falls short. Bringing in a fancy New York or Washington security attitude has its advantages, but I gotta ask… you ain’t been here long, have you?
*I’m really not kidding, and only slightly exaggerating. Shops that stay open until 8pm advertise that they’re open late, and most restaurants where you sit to eat close in the 7:30-8pm range. We have four fast food joints, and only one of them is open past 10pm, with two closing by 9. We only got a local movie theater in about 2004, and it sucks since the teenagers desperate for anything to do other than homework or going into the mountains to drink or smoke pot flood it and treat it like an overgrown daycare. The last time we visited, the theater was rowdy enough to warrant complaint to the manager, who we interrupted in the middle of a conversation with one of the brats while saying, and I am not making this up, “Yeah, so I can climb out my window and meet you at about 11:30.” Not that I’m still irritated or anything…
**It is still a subject that will generate rather heated debate in town here as to whether he really was a spy and managed to game the courts, or if he really was just a dumbass conehead that screwed up.
***Foreign nationals, regardless of security clearance, wear red identification badges.
****LANL policy has always said that badges are not to be worn around the townsite for security reasons. Before the wall fell, everybody ignored this because everybody was paying that close attention to the situation. After that but before Mr. Lee, nobody cared because hey, no Russians. After Mr. Lee, you could tell who was at least taking a stab at trying to play ball by a conspicuous but empty lanyard around the neck, etc. The New Guys still wear their badges around town.
*****Los Alamos traffic is amazing for this phenomenon. The morning rush is like Death Race 2000. The speed limit raises by about 15mph, and intersections are packed with people in a Big Damn Hurry. The evening rush, on the other hand, you’re doing good if you’re only doing 10mph below the speed limit, and parking lots and intersections are clogged with “Nah, you first”-ism. It’s frickin’ weird.