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How to guide to taking over the country's nuclear secrets
February 25, 2003 8:27 AM   Subscribe

In this exposé a Wired News reporter easily gains access to some sensitive areas of the Los Alamos National Lab, and brings back pictures to prove it. While certainly an embarrassment for a place throwing workshops on homeland security (and doubly so because their seminars started today), is it wise for Wired News to post essentially a how-to guide on breaking into the lab where America's nuclear secrets reside?
posted by mathowie (17 comments total)

 
I'll turn that around, and ask "is it wise for them not to"? I don't have anything in particular to back this statement up, but I don't believe you can prove security without trying to breach it.
posted by walrus at 8:31 AM on February 25, 2003


"improve" ...
posted by walrus at 8:32 AM on February 25, 2003


Aren't there official US agents, or teams, who have the actual job of doing (incognito) this sort of "probing" for security holes?
posted by troutfishing at 8:33 AM on February 25, 2003


Yes, troutfishing, they are called "tiger teams." Lucky for the managers of the defense installations the tiger teams must announce in advance they are operating in the area and what their mission will be.
posted by nofundy at 8:38 AM on February 25, 2003


Walrus is right. If I had confidence that Los Alamos was already doing their own security audits (or another branch of the gov't was doing real audits), then Wired's would be unecessary (but also, therefore, not unwise). I somehow doubt they're really pushing themselves that way already. In fact, I'd bet much of the U.S. Gov't is that way... except for a few paranoid people/agencies, and of course the number of people doing it for political reasons.

Wired coming out and doing this places direct and public pressure on Los Alamos to tighten up. It's unwise only if Los Alamos can't even respond to that -- and in that case, the reporter's lack of wisdom would be the least of the problems.

I wonder, though, if the reporter at least gave security a heads up on what he was trying to do and the story, some good chunk of time before he released it. That's polite and good sense: the public pressure will come, but you give time to prepare for the release of the information.

On preview: Hmmm. Tiger teams. Good idea. Pre-announced? Other than the fact you don't want to get shot testing security, why is that a good idea.
posted by namespan at 8:44 AM on February 25, 2003


Wired's how-to guide consists of "walk around the fence." Even with this top-secret information having been leaked by Wired, I feel confident that the world is just as safe today as it was yesterday.
posted by waldo at 9:12 AM on February 25, 2003


That reminds me of this story of Richard Feynman working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan project. By tinkering with the locks he could unlock drawers, cabinets, and safes that contained nuclear secrets in minutes. When told about the insecurities of the locks and safes, rather than fix them, the military instead told people to keep Feynman away from the safes.
posted by gyc at 9:30 AM on February 25, 2003


i would bet that NOW you wouldn't be able to do the same as the wired reporter. I would hope.

is this the same as a hacker reporting a security flaw? either the flaw is fixed or others exploit it?

[anyone remember that guy who toured missile silos? kept getting escorted around by security guys who would appear rather suddenly to help him get to the next town?]
posted by th3ph17 at 9:52 AM on February 25, 2003


The duty of journalism is to poke holes into established notions, including those that involve American ineptitude with matters of national security. Who's to say that a terrorist hasn't broken into Los Alamos in the same way? If anything, if the information at Los Alamos is considered important, a terrorist will attempt to break in, Wired article or not.

If Los Alamos security has been this shoddy for some time, then either (a) the supposed secrets are deemed not worthy of proper enforcement, (b) the secrets are not as terrifyingly "secret" as the government would like us to believe, or (c) the government is so inept at protecting their privileged information that they hire doofuses who don't check ID when people are locked in.

All this is worth exposing, if only to properly calibrate the true nature of national security and just how much the current atmosphere of fear is a result of propaganda. (Buy more duct tape!)
posted by ed at 10:08 AM on February 25, 2003


That reminds me of this story of Richard Feynman working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan project. By tinkering with the locks he could unlock drawers, cabinets, and safes that contained nuclear secrets in minutes. When told about the insecurities of the locks and safes, rather than fix them, the military instead told people to keep Feynman away from the safes.

Good book on Feynman: James Gleick's Genius. If he'd wanted some information, I have a hard time believing there would have been a good way to hide it from him. But the amazing thing is that the above is such a typical hacker/authority exchange. H: hey, look, it's easy to get past your security. A: Keep away from that, and don't call attention to it, son, or we'll put your butt in jail.

(b) the secrets are not as terrifyingly "secret" as the government would like us to believe,

I'd expect this is true. It seems somewhat likely to me that most of the information about how to make nuclear weapons is now available from physics and chemistry texts around the world. Reference Reader's Digest stories from the past decade or two in which (a) a college student has designed a nuclear bomb and (b) a teenager has isolated radioactive isotopes in his shed.


(c) the government is so inept at protecting their privileged information that they hire doofuses who don't check ID when people are locked in.

Do you think it's arguable that the government hires doofuses? : )

(Along with many dedicated and reasonably intelligent public servants, I don't doubt).
posted by namespan at 10:37 AM on February 25, 2003


What the article doesn't mention is that the barbed-wire fences in question have big signs on them warning you about explosives. There's lots of old ordnance lying around on the lab grounds. When I lived there, all us kids knew that wandering around and exploring was a very silly and dangerous thing to do. Even though it was easier than the article describes.
posted by nickmark at 10:40 AM on February 25, 2003


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...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.

So, let me get this straight:

- TA-33 is supposed to be one of the most secret areas at Los Alamos

But...

- It was most likely a former explosives testing area
- Four years ago they carted off 9 tones of uranium-contaminated soil
- A couple of months ago (give or take), some maintenance guys got caught stashing camping supplies in one of the buildings/sheds

The area is probably on the low end of the importance scale. Probably a manager said to him/herself "No one is stupid enough to hang around an old testing ground." and put their resources somewhere else. If TA-33 was really involved in the highest levels of "black" (reporter's term) research, guys in ninja suits would have come out of nowhere and carted his ass off. We would never have heard about the story, let alone seen any pictures of it. He probably wouldn't have been arrested (maybe), but scared a sort of shitless he wouldn't soon forget--let alone talk about.

Dumbass.
posted by Tystnaden at 11:28 AM on February 25, 2003


Many of us here at Los Alamos got quite a chuckle out of the wired article. Rest assured, the Wired reporter was nowhere near anything useful in terms of secrets. If he really was somewhere that would have compromised national security he would have been able to photograph one of the M-16 wielding security officers. That would be something to write about.

Think about it. What he did was equivalent to scaling the fence along the back lot of some military base. I'm thinking of the Arlington proving grounds for instance. It's fairly easy to do undetected and yes, you could do some damage. But there's not much you can do to seriously compromise national security before you're intercepted.
posted by Qubit at 11:32 AM on February 25, 2003


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.

Main entrance? The author really displays his lack of knowledge with that statement. There is no main entrance. Los Alamos Lab is spread out like a college campus. Even more so since many of it's technical areas are separated by valleys among the surrounding mesas. TA-3 is the "main" technical area, perhaps that is what he has in mind. But that area is mostly open to the public - by design. Residents of the town of Los Alamos are allowed to use our library, etc. The parking lots were open to the public up until 9/11/01. Now you need to show you're an employee to access the lots, but you can still walk-in.

I have yet to see an empty holster on any of the guards here with one exception: there is a waiting period for newly hired guards from when the commence their duties to when they're issued a weapon. In such cases, they are paired with a veteran guard.

I find this article very poorly written and biased from the outset with the picture that was trying to be developed. There are real issues worth writing about at Los Alamos but security isn't one of them.
posted by Qubit at 12:24 PM on February 25, 2003


If he really was somewhere that would have compromised national security he would have been able to photograph one of the M-16 wielding security officers.

I think the writer's motivation was to get his story mentioned in the upcoming congressional hearings he described.
posted by gsteff at 1:55 PM on February 25, 2003


If he really was somewhere that would have compromised national security he would have been able to photograph one of the M-16 wielding security officers.

Of course, that would depend on, at the very least, if the guard didn't destroy the film/camera first. Or blow his brains out, at which point the article is moot.
posted by PeteyStock at 3:42 PM on February 25, 2003


some informed comments via politech.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:24 AM on February 26, 2003


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