Two employees at a government-owned nuclear laboratory with a long and sordid history of grave security breaches have pleaded guilty to federal charges for passing classified weapons data to a foreign government that’s hostile to the U.S.
It marks the latest of many shameful scandals at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, among the world’s largest science institutions and the nation’s key nuclear weapons research facility. The massive lab is charged with developing technology to reduce global threats and ensure the safety, security and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
Instead it may be best known for its perpetual failure to adequately guard highly classified material over the years. In the late 90s and early 2000 the facility became an embarrassment to the Energy Department. Revelations of theft, fraud, security lapses and lax oversight kept Los Alamos in the news and led to the release of an Energy Department document labeling it “a systematic management failure.”
In 1999 a Chinese communist scientist (Wen Ho Lee) stole nuclear secrets from the facility but was not prosecuted by the Clinton Justice Department because then Attorney General Janet Reno claimed the accusations were racist. Judicial Watch represented the whistleblower, Notra Trulock, responsible for launching an investigation into Lee’s actions. Trulok was the Energy Department’s intelligence operations chief and Clinton administration officials defamed him by accusing him of being a racist in order to cover up Lee’s repeated security violations.
In 2007 lab officials sent top secret data relating to nuclear weapons via an open electronic mail network. The highly classified information included details of the actual characteristics of nuclear material used in weapons. Police accidentally stumbled upon it in a drug dealer’s mobile home during a drug bust. The 1,500 highly classified nuclear weapons designs were stashed in a trailer park near the lab along with paraphernalia to manufacture methamphetamine.
This month the Department of Justice (DOJ) reveals that a Los Alamos scientist and his wife, both contractors at the facility, stole “classified restricted data” involving nuclear weapons and passed it along to a person they believed to be a Venezuelan government official. The scientist, Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Argentina and his wife, Marjorie, also an American citizen, did technical writing and editing at Los Alamos. Both had security clearances.
The breach occurred between 2007 and 2009, according to federal prosecutors. The scientist admitted selling the information relating to the “United States’ national defense” and he also admitted lying to the FBI. The wife admitted communicating restricted data belonging to the United States to another person with reason to believe that the information would be used to secure an advantage to Venezuela. She also admitted lying to the FBI.
This isn’t the only case to illustrate the government’s failure to adequately secure nuclear labs in the U.S. In an embarrassing incident last year, an 82-year-old nun along with two other seniors managed to evade what the feds call the “most stringent security in the world” to break into a nuclear weapons lab—Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee—often referred to as the “fort Knox of Uranium.”