Touring Scientists Targeted by Spies

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

Foreign spies apparently find traveling U.S. nuclear scientists irresistible. A congressional report released today details dozens of sometimes clumsy attempts by foreign agents to obtain nuclear secrets, from offering scientists prostitutes to prying off the backs of their laptop computers. The report highlights the need to better prepare traveling researchers to safeguard secrets and resist such temptations, say lawmakers and the Department of Energy (DOE).

The General Accounting Office reviewed DOE reports on more than 5000 foreign excursions by scientists from four national laboratories: Sandia and Los Alamos in New Mexico; Livermore in California; and Oak Ridge in Tennessee. It found more than 75 incidents between 1995 and 1999 in which researchers reported the possibility of eavesdropping or luggage tampering or said they were offered sexual favors. Some of the travel involved the 25 nations on DOE's "sensitive" list, which includes Russia, China, and Ukraine. DOE officials say no secrets were revealed.

The report makes for racy reading. In one case, a scientist was repeatedly propositioned by women who called his hotel room and knocked on his door. Another DOE researcher, in a post-trip debriefing with security officials, admitted to sleeping with at least four women, including a prostitute, a waitress, and two employees of a laboratory he was visiting. There were also reports of tampering with personal equipment, including rifling through and then locking a previously unlocked briefcase, turning on a previously shut down computer, and trying to pry open the back of a laptop.

Some researchers used suspected eavesdropping to their advantage. After talking to their hotel walls about the desire for an extra roll of toilet paper or a television set, two scientists were pleasantly surprised to see the items appear within hours. In another eavesdropping episode, "maids" interrupted a meeting to move potted plants closer to visiting U.S. scientists.

GAO investigators say the episodes highlight the need to brief researchers more carefully and to review all travel plans, because spies "can operate worldwide." DOE officials agree with the findings and say they are expanding reviews and paying more attention to activities involving nonsensitive nations. But given limited funds, says one official, the agency "will probably continue to target the primary threat, and that is the sensitive nations."

Posted in Scientific Community