WASHINGTON -- Federal investigators are closely examining two computer hard drives containing nuclear secrets that were found at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory, believing they are the ones missing for more than a month. They want to determine whether the information has been compromised.
Authorities hoped to know by late Saturday whether the two drives definitely are the same ones that disappeared and, after an electronic examination, learn whether the contents have been copied or otherwise tampered with, said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The two devices, each about the size of a deck of cards, contain highly technical information that would be used by a nuclear emergency response team to locate and dismantle not only U.S., but some Russian and other countries' nuclear devices in case of an accident or terrorist act.
''They were found in a secure area. The area is being treated as a crime scene,'' Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said at a news conference in Phoenix, where he was informed of the discovery Friday while holding a meeting on summer electricity reliability.
Richardson said the two devices were found within the secure ''Division X'' area of the New Mexico weapons lab in an area that had been searched previously. Another official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were discovered behind a copying machine.
The highly restricted area includes the vault where the two drives, which belong to the Nuclear Emergency Search Team had been kept. They were last reported seen April 7 and found missing a month later, although senior lab and Energy Department officials were not informed until recently.
While relieved that the drives were found within the secure area of the lab, Richardson said ''this is not a victory speech'' and that the FBI and the Energy Department ''would continue to aggressively pursue'' the criminal investigation. Even with the drives recovered those responsible could face criminal charges for security breaches.
''We are going to hold people accountable. There are going to be people disciplined,'' Richardson said.
At least a half-dozen Los Alamos scientists -- among 26 people with free access to the vault where the devices had been kept -- have been given polygraph tests and some answers have raised suspicions among investigators, according to government sources. And six Los Alamos managers, including the chief of the emergency response team that used the devices and the head of the lab's nuclear programs already have been put on leave with pay pending completion of the investigations.
The disappearance of the hard drives had evoked anger and frustration both in Congress and at the White House and Energy Department, which didn't learn of the security breach for nearly a month after the devices were found missing from the vault.
The discovery of the two drives did not stem the criticism.
''It raises more questions about security than it answers,'' said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. ''The hard drives were apparently discovered in an area that had been previously searched, raising the strong possibility that they were returned to the site after being stolen.''
Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee called the missing drives ''a major security failure'' that had ''potentially devastating'' consequences if the information were compromised. The CIA has been asked to make an assessment of potential harm.
Meanwhile, six Democratic members of the House, led by Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, ranking member of the Commerce Committee, urged Richardson to cancel the government's contract with the University of California for managing the Los Alamos lab.
They said the university, which has managed Los Alamos as well as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California for the government for more than 50 years, is ''incapable of carrying out its ... obligations'' to provide security.
Associated Press writer Michael J. Sniffen in Washington contributed to this story.
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