U.S. weapons labs shut down classified networks

Three Energy Department facilities halt operations on all computers that handle secret information, in response to an unfavorable information security rating in a DOE audit.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science Credentials
  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
3 min read
The nation's three nuclear weapons labs have shut down their classified computer systems for at least a week to beef up network security.

Three preeminent Energy Department facilities halted operations Friday on all computers that handle secret information, in response to an unfavorable information security rating in a DOE audit of last year, according to Los Alamos National Laboratory spokesman Jim Danneskiold. The other two labs affected by the shutdown are Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.

Suspending operations on this scale is a relatively rare event for the labs, which the federal government annually funds to the tune of about a billion dollars each. During the stand-down, employees and managers will develop and implement plans to better guard information against inside and outside threats. For example, they'll learn how to find out if someone has tampered with their computers.

The labs' classified computers are separated from other computers by an "air gap"--an actual physical separation--but there are other ways secret information can make its way from classified computers to open computers, such as ordinary floppy disks.

The stand-down comes in the wake of widespread attention on a Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) employee, Taiwan-born Wen Ho Lee, who was fired last month for violating the lab's security policies and for failing a lie detector test on questions about releasing U.S. nuclear weapons information to China. Lee hasn't been charged with a crime, and China has denied the allegations.

Responsible for designing U.S. nuclear labs during the Cold War, the research labs now are charged to make sure existing nuclear weapons work safely and as advertised. With the current ban on nuclear testing in the United States, much of that nuclear weapons work is done inside simulations on supercomputers.

The DOE, as part of its regular annual audit of the labs, gave LANL a "marginal" rating for security. DOE projected that this year, LANL would improve its security record to "satisfactory" in all areas except information security, Danneskiold said.

"There have been security infractions involving computer security at the lab," Danneskiold said, declining to describe specifics.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has been working to tighten security throughout the Energy Department since last fall, and last month said he was seeking to increase next year's counterintelligence budget by $8 million to beef up computer defenses and to screen outgoing email for sensitive information.

"Secretary Richardson recently sent me a letter directing the laboratory to take steps to improve our safeguards, security, and counterintelligence programs and, in particular, to provide enhanced and prompt measures for cybersecurity at the laboratory," LANL Director John Browne told LANL employees in an April 2 memo.

The stand-down plan was developed with the three lab directors in consultation with Richardson, Danneskiold said. It affects all desktop computers, servers, workstations, supercomputers, classified communications, local area networks, and storage systems. The only computers that will remain running are those necessary for safety and security, such as those that operate alarm systems or that are used to monitor nuclear materials.

All three facilities will undertake several initiatives to improve security, including conducting computer security and threat awareness training; devising stricter access policies and tougher enforcement; implementing more rigorous procedures for transferring information from classified to unclassified computers; and establishing new intrusion detection measures.

The research labs are perhaps best-known for their work on what the DOE describes as the world's fastest computers, under a program called the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative. That program, which also incorporates some of the high-tech industry's leading private firms, aims to spur development of supercomputers using large numbers of relatively ordinary chips.

Sandia and Intel received the first such computer several years ago. Livermore is working with IBM, and Los Alamos is working with Silicon Graphics.