WASHINGTON (AP) â€” The investigation into the disappearance â€” and mysterious reappearance â€” of two computer hard drives holding nuclear secrets at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory is narrowing on several scientists who have given contradictory answers, government officials say.
The scientists being scrutinized most closely are among 26 people who had free access to a high-security vault in the New Mexico complex where the data storage disks vanished more than six weeks ago, only to be found under suspicious circumstances Friday.
Analysts hoped, possibly as early as Monday, to determine definitively whether the material on the two drives had been compromised, copied or in any way tampered with. The devices were flown to Washington on Sunday for electronic analysis.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, while acknowledging the devices were found in a room already searched several times, said he had ``no evidence that they ever left the X Division'' â€” the high-security part of the lab where nuclear weapons designers work.
Department officials said the investigation was focusing on ``several'' members of a nuclear emergency response team that had free access to the vault holding the devices. These individuals have made ``contradictory statements'' and given ``suspicious'' answers during polygraph tests, said Edward Curran, the Energy Department's director of counterintelligence.
The discovery of the two hard drives â€” and Richardson's assurances that security is his top priority â€” did little to ease the sharp criticism by congressional Republicans of the Clinton administration over security lapses in the nuclear weapons programs and elsewhere
``They are worried more about political correctness,'' Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on NBC's ``Meet the Press.'' He cited not only the Los Alamos incident, but loss of a classified laptop computer at the State Department and disclosure that a former CIA director often took classified information home and left it in his unsecured computer.
Earlier this year, the Justice and Energy departments and the FBI were strongly criticized for their handling years of investigations into alleged theft of nuclear weapons secrets by China.
The probe focused on Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, who has been charged with illegally copying secret documents and awaits trial. But there has never been enough evidence to charge Lee or anyone else with espionage.
Goss and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who also made the television talk show rounds Sunday, called on Richardson to resign over security lapses in the nuclear weapons programs.
``He's not the man for the job,'' Shelby said on CBS' ``Face the Nation.''
Richardson has dismissed such a notion. And White House spokesman Jim Kennedy said: ``We have full confidence in Secretary Richardson, who is working hard to get to the bottom of this. And that kind of a partisan finger-pointing should not be taken too seriously.''
Richardson launched a vigorous defense of his yearlong effort to improve security at the labs and said he wanted to avoid ``a partisan food fight'' over the latest controversy. In a few days ``we will know what happened,'' he predicted.
``There's going to be disciplinary action. There's going to be accountability,'' said Richardson, using similar language on several TV programs and in other interviews.
The hard drives at the center of the Los Alamos incident were part of response ``kits'' used by the lab's Nuclear Emergency Security Team. They contain technical information needed to locate and dismantle U.S. or even foreign nuclear devices that might be used in a terrorist attack.
The drives, each about the size of a deck of cards and designed for laptop computers, were discovered missing May 7 when two scientists wanted to make sure they were protected from a wildfire that threatened the lab. The lab was evacuated the next day because of the fire threat, but no one reported the devices missing until May 31, triggering the investigation.
Investigators said that while one scientist reported seeing the drives in the vault on April 7, it remained unclear when they were last inventoried; they could have been missing longer.
Classified as ``secret'' â€” as opposed to ``top secret'' â€” the drives did not have to be signed in or out, making it more difficult to determine who might have had them last and when, investigators said.
A 1993 policy change, initiated by President Bush and continued by President Clinton, eased the tracking requirements for material classified as secret, no longer requiring specific sign-out procedures, officials said.