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Los Alamos confirms data breach

Times Staff Writer

Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the nation’s key nuclear weapons research centers, confirmed Wednesday that it experienced a potentially major security breach -- discovered last week when police found three laboratory computer drives during a drug arrest at a New Mexico trailer park.

Police reports released Wednesday identified the owner of the trailer, where officers found a sizable amount of drug paraphernalia associated with methamphetamine use, as Jessica Quintana. Law enforcement officials said Quintana was a former contract employee at the lab.

The FBI executed a second search of the trailer in Los Alamos on Friday but sealed the warrant and said little about what agents found.

Quintana was employed as an archivist and apparently had a key security clearance, including approvals to participate in special access programs, according to sources familiar with the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

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Law enforcement and lab officials have declined to say what information was found on the computer drives.

The New Mexico lab has a history of security problems dating to March 1999, when the FBI accused scientist Wen Ho Lee of leaking nuclear secrets to China. Lee later pleaded guilty to one count of mishandling nuclear data; prosecutors dismissed the other charges.

In July 2004, Los Alamos was shut down after two incidents -- the reported loss of two classified computer disks and a laser accident that injured an undergraduate intern -- and remained closed for the rest of that year.

Investigators later concluded that the reportedly missing disks had never existed. The lab’s closure was estimated to have cost the government up to $370 million.

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Security and safety problems were among the key reasons the Energy Department elected not to renew the laboratory’s management contract held by the University of California. In December, it awarded a new contract to a consortium that included UC and Bechtel National, as well as several other private firms.

The consortium was under tremendous pressure to clean up what is widely regarded in Washington as a “cowboy culture” at the lab that openly disdains federal oversight and takes a lax attitude toward security. Two previous directors of the lab resigned after their tenures were marked by scandal.

The security breach also comes at a potentially critical time for the laboratory as the Energy and Defense departments weigh proposals to design the nation’s newest nuclear device, the so-called reliable replacement warhead. The lab is in competition with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California to design and oversee the nuclear device.

In a statement Wednesday, Los Alamos Director Michael Anastasio said the lab was cooperating with the FBI and had taken steps to address potential security risks. The statement indicated the incident was not minor.

“Let me reiterate how seriously I regard this matter as one of the upmost concern to us all,” Anastasio said.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, which has prodded the Energy Department to beef up security at nuclear weapons sites, said the case showed that very little had improved at Los Alamos under the new contract.

“Despite the changes in the contract, we are still seeing the same old sloppiness,” Brian said. “The government needs to be more serious about oversight at the lab.”

The case involves three so-called jump or thumb drives, small devices that plug into the USB port on a personal computer and that can hold a sizable amount of data.

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Los Alamos police found the drives Oct. 17 when they responded to a report of a fight at Quintana’s home at the Royal Crest Trailer Park. When they arrived, they found Justin Stone, 20, who was wanted for probation violations. Stone was arrested and remains in custody on the probation violation, police said.

Stone told police that Quintana had allowed him to stay at the trailer a couple of days a week. During the arrest, the police found several glass pipes and other drug items covered with residues, which tests confirmed as methamphetamine.

Quintana admitted to police at the time that at least one of the glass pipes was hers, according to the police report.

The report also lists the three thumb drives as confiscated in the search. The drives apparently had markings that indicated they were property of the nuclear lab, and police notified the FBI.

The police did not charge Quintana, but referred the case to the local district attorney for a review of possible charges of possession of methamphetamine and possession, delivery or manufacture of drug paraphernalia.

KRQE, a local news station in Los Alamos, reported Wednesday that Quintana’s employment contract with the lab expired several weeks ago. The station quoted a local YMCA official as saying Quintana more recently worked at the YMCA as a director of an after-school program, but was fired when news of the drug investigation broke.

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ralph.vartabedian @latimes.com

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