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Wired-Journalist läuft mal eben bei Los Alamosrein
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
"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
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
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."
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