Web sites offer access to many U.S. military secrets

Nature of classified data transformed by Internet, federal authorities say

May 17, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Pssst, want to know a secret?

China doesn't need to use spies anymore to obtain precise details and sketches of America's most modern thermonuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and re-entry vehicles.

These days, anyone armed with an Internet account or a library card can get some of the same military secrets that China is accused of stealing from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

That might explain why several Chinese government agencies and technical academies have tried repeatedly to access a Maryland-based online service, called USNI Military Database, that offers estimates of such classified data as the explosive yield of U.S. nuclear warheads, the accuracy of the missiles that carry them, and the names of the Navy warships and the locations of U.S. Air Force strategic wings responsible for the weapons.

In this case, however, China has failed to get the goods. The reason: the privately run database costs at least $2,500 for a year's subscription. And the information comes from military journals, conference reports, arms control treaties, congressional testimony and other open sources.

"They're constantly asking for free samples," Josh Cohen, managing editor of the database service, complained Thursday of Beijing's Web surfers seeking nuclear information. "They could buy this if they wanted it. There's no law against it."

U.S. officials said that at least some, but not all, of the classified material that China is known to have obtained on U.S. warheads, missiles and nose cones is available on the Web. They won't say precisely what for fear of confirming the information.

"If I start to list it, I tell China what we know, and also what information they got that is accurate," one intelligence official explained.

But the explosion of information on the Internet, from high-resolution classified satellite images of Baghdad to a cut-away diagram of a W-88, America's most sophisticated nuclear warhead, has left America's intelligence and law enforcement agencies scrambling to keep up.

"This is not the Manhattan Project anymore," said Robert S. Norris, a nuclear weapons expert with the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, referring to the secret World War II effort that produced America's first atom bomb. "The nature of what a secret is has been transformed through computers and e-mail and cyberspace and the World Wide Web."

Of immediate concern to federal authorities is whether a former Los Alamos nuclear scientist, Wen Ho Lee, used e-mail, a removable disc or other means to pass massive amounts of top-secret nuclear weapons programs and data to China or anyone else.

The FBI has determined that Lee electronically transferred highly classified computer files into an insecure office network for 12 years.

Lee then tried to erase the data shortly before he was fired for security violations on March 8, officials have said. He has not been charged with a crime, and insists through his lawyer that he has done no wrong.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson last week announced an overhaul of security at the labs. Ernest J. Moniz, the undersecretary of energy, conceded any new effort may be too late if information has already disappeared down a phone line. "Technology evolved faster than cyber-security," Moniz said.

Pub Date: 5/17/99

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