The U.S. State Department said Tuesday it is planning disciplinary action against six employees in connection with a laptop computer that was reported missing in January and is believed to have contained top-secret information.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said at a press conference that the U.S. Bureau of Human Resources proposed disciplinary action against six employees of the U.S. Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) in connection with the disappearance of the laptop. At least one senior official faces termination, and the others could receive career-halting suspensions or letters of reprimand.
The department also announced that INR Director J. Stapleton Roy, one of the nation’s three most senior foreign-service officers, resigned from his post. Although Roy was scheduled to retire in January, Boucher denied that Roy was leaving earlier to protest the reported firing of his deputy, Donald Keyser, over the laptop incident. Keyser is reported to be the senior official facing termination over the incident, although Boucher wouldn’t comment. A State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Roy’s departure took Secretary of State Madeleine Albright by surprise.
“We’re up here saying that the secretary is concerned about the leadership of this bureau as we go forward and that she is making certain decisions about who should lead the bureau through transition in order to ensure that it is in solid shape as we go through this turmoil and proceed on to try to serve a new secretary,” said Boucher. “And third of all, I’m telling you that Stapleton Roy decided to retire early.”
The disappearance of the laptop “was a very serious matter” for the department, said Boucher. An investigation revealed that it held thousands of pages of top-secret “codeword” information about weapons proliferation issues. It disappeared from a conference room at the State Department’s headquarters and hasn’t been recovered.
In response to this and other recent security breaches, Albright ordered a thorough review of security at the department. She also signed off on a training and awareness program that requires each office in the department to assign a staff member to serve as a unit security officer to ensure security policies are observed.
However, some security and intelligence experts in and outside of the department view Albright’s handling of the case and other recent security lapses as heavy-handed.
A State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the security procedures put in place to date are taking their toll on the agency. “We are so tied in knots about security here, it is amazing we can do anything,” the official said.
Stephen Aftergood, an intelligence specialist at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, called the State Department’s actions “heartbreaking” and said there should be a better way to handle these situations. “We are running the risk of creating a secure workplace where no one wants to work,” said Aftergood.
Allen Thomson, a longtime U.S. Central Intelligence Agency veteran, called the State Department’s response to the missing laptop, as well as the CIA’s recent firing of four employees for taking part in an unofficial chat room on CIA data networks, symptoms of “[Wen Ho Lee]-induced cybersecurity hysteria.” Lee is the Taiwanese-American scientist charged by the government with downloading nuclear secrets from computers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
“These are offenses that would have been handled, if at all, at much lower levels and with much less consequence in earlier years,” said Thomson. “Feckless officials are seized with the need to look tough lest they be hauled before Congress and their budgets threatened. Perhaps there’s a core of legitimate security concern in this, but it’s buried pretty deep.”
The inquiry into the laptop’s disappearance revealed basic security lapses throughout the department, such as leaving doors open to conference rooms and the failure of State Department employees to escort contractors lacking security clearances. In addition, the department’s inspector general criticized INR sharply last year for lax handling of “sensitive compartmented information” that the laptop reportedly held.
However, the missing laptop is only one of a laundry list of high-profile cases involving security lapses at the department.
In December 1999, a member of the Russian intelligence service managed to plant what federal security officials characterized as “an extremely sophisticated device in the department’s headquarters. The device was discovered in an undisclosed room at the department.
Other recent security breaches include the removal of classified documents from Albright’s outer office by an unknown man who managed to lurk the halls of the department’s headquarters building in Washington without being questioned or apprehended. In addition, an unclassified laptop signed out to Albright aide Morton Halperin also disappeared, but no disciplinary action was taken.