Albuquerque JournalThe computer tapes Wen Ho Lee may have thrown in the trash presumably containing nuclear secrets would survive quite well in a landfill, according to the president of a top-ranked data recovery company.
November 30, 2000
Tapes Expected to Be OKBy Jennifer McKee, Journal Staff Writer
Lee Tydlaska, president and founder of Computer Conversions, a San Diego company that pries information off damaged computers and equipment, said a strong magnet or hot fire could permanently destroy the tapes. But landfill conditions, which range from potential crushing to methane gas, wouldn't do much damage.
"They've lasted through floods, fires and the insides were still recoverable," Tydlaska said.
At the heart of the government's concerns over Lee, fired from Los Alamos National Laboratory and arrested in 1999 for mishandling nuclear information, are several computer tapes containing weapons data that Lee downloaded from the lab's computer network.
After a lengthy legal battle, Lee pleaded guilty in September to a single count of withholding information, while the government agreed to drop 58 other charges against him. Lee and his lawyers have publicly maintained that all the tapes were destroyed and never passed to anyone. The tapes, however, have never been found.
To find out what happened to the tapes, the FBI has been interrogating Lee in Albuquerque since his release. A team of FBI agents started digging in the Los Alamos landfill Tuesday and are believed to be looking for the missing cassettes, although an agency spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny that claim Wednesday. The representative, Doug Beldon, wouldn't say if the agency was looking for anything other than the tapes.
The Associated Press has reported that a source close to the investigation acknowledged that the landfill search is related to the Lee case. The crews worked from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. and will continue their search until they've sifted all 5,000 tons of trash in a particular part of the landfill or until they find what they're looking for, whichever comes first, Beldon said. Beldon said the crews could be in the landfill for weeks more, although he expects the FBI's ongoing interviews with Lee to be finished by the end of December.
The missing tapes were manufactured by IBM, said lab spokesperson Jim Danneskiold, and are on an older kind of technology called the DC 6150.
The tapes are actually cartridges, said Tydlaska, and look something like small, thin video tapes. Information is stored on tape wound around two reels, encased in hard plastic with an aluminum base. The cartridges are commonly stored in snapping plastic boxes similar to those used to store VHS tapes at video stores.
Only one company, Imation, still makes the DC 6150. Imation guarantees the tapes in temperatures ranging from around freezing to 130 degrees, according to information provided by Imation. Regardless, Tydlaska said, landfill conditions are not likely to render the tapes unreadable.
According to Ray Sisneros, the dump manager, a large, clawed tractor compacts all trash. During the winter, the top 2 feet of the landfill will freeze, while lower depths make their own heat, he said. Methane gas, a byproduct of decomposition, also can build up.
Nothing at the landfill is likely to phase the DC 6150, Tydlaska said, except the possibility of the tapes being crushed and physically destroyed by the tractor and even then, the tape itself would have to gnarled and snapped.
"It's all time and money," Tydlaska said. "If you break the cartridge, but the tape is still intact, we can just put it in a new cartridge." Tydlaska said throwing the tapes in the garbage would be "the last way," to destroy them.
While lawyers on both sides of the case have been mum about the dump search, others view the development as the beginning of the end of Lee's long involvement with federal law enforcement.
"It's encouraging that Wen Ho Lee has provided the FBI with a scenario that could be tested and the FBI is proceeding to run it down," said Steve Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. "There is at least the potential for conclusion in the matter. Either he is at long last providing the answer or this is another wild goose chase."
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