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Labs' E-Mail Screen Will Sift for Spies

January 12, 2001

The Department of Energy plans to start snooping on every piece of electronic mail entering or leaving Los Alamos and Sandia national labs to guard against spying.

A computer will sift through the mail, forwarding anything suspicious to a counterintelligence analyst. All mail to or from foreign countries will automatically be deemed suspicious.

Mail to "foreign nationals" also will trigger an automatic review, according to a notice issued Monday establishing the "Electronic Mail Analysis Capability."

Beyond singling out foreign mail, the department has not defined what sort of suspicious words might trigger a review, according to the notice.

The notice calls it a "pilot program" aimed at testing whether monitoring lab e-mail is an effective way to deal with espionage threats to the nuclear weapons laboratories.

The program will be tested for six months at four labs -- Sandia, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore in California and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state.

The computer that screens the mail will forward anything suspicious to a classified computer network where analysts will look at it to see if further investigation is warranted, according to the notice.

Energy Department officials familiar with the program were not available Thursday, according to a spokeswoman, who declined further comment.

Officials at New Mexico's two Energy Department laboratories said it is too soon to say what the program will mean in practice.

Sandia is waiting for more detailed guidance from the department on how to implement the program, said labs spokesman Howard Kercheval.

At Los Alamos, computer security and intelligence officials are trying to decide how to proceed, said lab spokesman Kevin Roark.

"It's very new," Roark said.

The program's existence was revealed Thursday by Steven Aftergood, a government security and secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists who publishes an electronic newsletter called "Secrecy News."

Aftergood said the program is not unreasonable but is likely to have a chilling effect on regular electronic correspondence between lab employees and outsiders.

"My prejudice is that in a nuclear weapons environment, there is an interest in maintaining a reasonable counterintelligence posture," he said in an interview Thursday.

But he said the policy will make him think twice about including jokes or other comments that might be misinterpreted in e-mail to a lab staffer.

© 2001 Albuquerque Journal


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