How Nuke Secrets Left Los Alamos

After seven years of security scandals at the nation's premier nuclear weapons research facility, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the latest incident shows security — at least for some — amounts to little more than an honor system.

CBS News has learned how shockingly easy it was for a young employee to walk out of Los Alamos with classified data — data related to decades of U.S. underground nuclear weapons tests.

Underground nuclear weapons tests were conducted in the U.S. for decades in secrecy, the data from the tests kept as closely-guarded national secrets.

It was that data that Jessica Quintana was hired to archive, reports CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson. The lab gave her top-secret security clearance when she was just 18. Sources say she also had access to the documents telling how to deactivate locks on nuclear weapons.

In August, she was allegedly able to walk out the door with 400 pages of classified documents, contained in "thumb drives" — small portable computer storage devices about the size of a thumb.

CBS News has learned that, at what's supposed to be one of the most secure facilities in the world, nobody even bothered to check Quintana's backpack when she left, that day or any other.

"They just waved," says a source. "There is no oversight."

The documents were found six weeks later by accident in a drug raid on Quintana's roommate at their trailer home. Quintana, now 22, says she never gave the data to anyone.

But the case is baffling watchdogs such as Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who thought security holes had been tightened after the scandals.

"These are secrets that could be valuable for al Qaeda," Markey said. "9/11 was a warning to us. Our enemies want to have access to the most dangerous technologies to hurt our country."

The case also has the FBI scrambling to see if the material got into the wrong hands. Agents have spent about six hours in two interviews with Quintana, so far.

Sources say she worked in a secure office space called a "vault," but monitoring of the super-secret area is so lax that, more than once, she got locked inside and had to pound on the door to get out because nobody even knew she was in there working.

The computers in the vault had working USB ports, which means it was scandalously simple to copy classified documents onto a small, portable storage device.

And as odd as this may seem, Quintana had a higher security clearance than the FBI agents questioning her, so "they couldn't talk (with her) about everything," a source told Attkisson.

Markey says the lab is the opposite of the song "Hotel California" where "you can never leave." At Los Alamos, "You can leave anytime you want. Take whatever you want. We're not even going to be looking at your bags," he says.

The Energy Department inspector general has already weighed in, calling the incident "especially troubling," since taxpayers have spent "tens of millions of dollars" to upgrade security there in recent years.

A spokesman for Los Alamos tells CBS News that after the October raid on Quintana's trailer, many new security measures were installed. These include disabling the ability to download classified materials to unauthorized electronic devices and banning computer memory devices in certain areas. However, an official with the Department of Energy tells CBS News he thought those measures had been taken long ago.

"It is clear that despite almost a decade of repeated warnings and problems regarding the security associated with classified materials, the department has failed time and time again to actually do anything about it," Markey stated in a letter to Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman. "It appears that there are significant institutional barriers within the Department and at the Laboratories that have prevented real reforms from moving forward."

Markey, in his letter, posed a series of questions to Bodman and asked for answers by Jan. 5, 2007.

Two billion tax dollars are spent each year to operate the lab.