Spies among us

The Office of Counterintelligence works to detect and deter espionage at Los Alamos.

By Virginia Grant | July 26, 2021

Lab Ta3 Small
The Laboratory’s Technical Area 3 sits at the base of the Jemez mountains in Northern New Mexico. Los Alamos National Laboratory

A scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory met, through his work, another scientist from a sensitive foreign country (one that poses national security challenges to the United States, as determined by the Department of Energy’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence). Their professional relationship turned into a friendship and, for years, they spent time together as friends and exchanged correspondence about their families and personal lives.

Because Laboratory employees must report these types of relationships, Los Alamos counterintelligence was aware of this friendship and discovered that the friend had ties to his country’s intelligence services. The scientist was skeptical and waved off these warnings time and time again. Then, one day, the friend asked the scientist a question about classified information that only had military application. That was the end of that friendship.

This seems like something that might happen on an episode of Jack Ryan or The Americans, but this is a true story and the type of scenario that personnel in the Office of Counterintelligence (OCI) at Los Alamos are watchful for every day. “Once my wife asked me how my day went,” says OCI Director John Chaddic. “I told her it was ‘interesting.’ She responded, ‘I don’t like it when you say you have an interesting day; that’s not good for the country.’”

When Chaddic and his colleagues have an interesting day, something has happened that involves what he calls “intelligence activity.” Although much of what happens in the office, as one might imagine, may not be written about, the overarching job of the office is to protect the information of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Before coming to Los Alamos, Chaddic spent 23 years in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), finishing his career there as an acting special agent in charge of counterintelligence and cyber investigations in the FBI’s Los Angeles office.

“Most of the officers and analysts at Los Alamos have counterintelligence backgrounds from the FBI, CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], or U.S. Intelligence Community, but the office occasionally employs locally when the employee has the right skill set,” says Jason Allen, group leader for Counterintelligence Activities and Threat Awareness, which falls under OCI. Allen worked for the CIA for 13 years, focusing on cyber operations, hard target operations, and counterterrorism.

A big part of the office’s work is to coordinate and facilitate international visitors, usually scientists who come to the Lab to work, give guest lectures, or collaborate with Los Alamos scientists. OCI ensures that the work the Laboratory does with foreign nationals can be conducted safely and securely. “The office has a significant role in helping the Lab maintain access to international talent,” Allen says, “and mitigate the risk such talent might pose.”

“If the Lab is to retain its international status as a premier science leader, we don’t want to rule out hiring people from any country if the risk can be mitigated.” —John Chaddic

The country posing the greatest espionage threat to Los Alamos—as identified by both the FBI and the Office of the Director of U.S. National Intelligence—is China. Yet the Laboratory employs more than 100 Chinese nationals along with nearly 400 nationals from other sensitive foreign countries. “If the Lab is to retain its international status as a premier science leader,” Chaddic says, “we don’t want to rule out hiring people from any country if the risk can be mitigated.” That’s why there are many people involved in deciding who can be allowed to work at the Laboratory. Also, a foreign national is never granted a security clearance unless he or she first renounces his or her original citizenship, or if he or she becomes a dual citizen of the United States and another country. OCI supports leadership at the Laboratory on a routine basis to consider all information and to conduct thorough risk-benefit analyses before making these types of hires.

“We have a robust insider threat program that helps detect insiders who might want to commit espionage or terrorism,” Chaddic says. Part of this includes training for all Laboratory employees about insider threat issues—how to be alert to them and what to do if they suspect a colleague of being an insider threat.

The office also helps Los Alamos employees watch out for external attempts at espionage, many of which seem so innocuous that they are difficult to spot. A common scenario is one called a “bump,” which is when a foreign intelligence officer is directed to make contact with someone from whom the foreign officer might like to glean information. The foreign officer has to figure out how to meet the target. This could happen in line at Starbucks, at an academic conference, on an airplane, or anywhere that people interact in public. The sole purpose of the initial meeting is to get a second meeting, which is why it might seem completely harmless. Perhaps someone comments on the target’s sweatshirt or a magazine the target is reading. “We tell people,” Allen says, “particularly when they’re traveling, especially overseas, that they should look out for chance encounters with people they didn’t know that afterward leave them with a reason to talk with them again.”

This is one reason Los Alamos employees are prohibited from wearing badges offsite and are discouraged from wearing clothing with the Laboratory logo on it while traveling. Although most targets are chosen ahead of time, it’s possible that a bump could arise from a foreign intelligence agent seeing a window of opportunity in the form of a coffee mug or a Los Alamos logo jacket.

Another scenario—perhaps even more difficult to spot—is when a mutual friend introduces a foreign intelligence officer to the target. “It could be,” Allen says, “that someone you know and trust brings someone else in, and that person is an intelligence officer.” The tricky part about this, he explains, is that the friend may not have a choice. If the friend seems uncomfortable or uneasy, these might be signs that the friend’s home country is forcing him or her to facilitate a connection between foreign intelligence officer and target.

The iconic status of Los Alamos makes it a high-profile target, for every employee, no matter his or her role. Foreign intelligence officers aren’t always looking for scientific secrets or classified weapons information. They might be looking for the layout of a building, the location of a particular office, or something else that seems innocuous to many of those working at Los Alamos but would be useful to a foreign intelligence agency. For preventing espionage, Chaddic says, “Our employees are our best line of defense.”