Investigators into a potentially devastating security breach at the US nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos are considering the possibility that visiting British atomic experts made off with two sensitive computer disks that have been missing since early July.
That diplomatically explosive scenario was raised at a recent closed-door congressional hearing in Washington, where lawmakers have threatened scientists working at the lab with dismissal or even criminal prosecution for what they see as an inexcusable disregard for security procedures.
James Greenwood, a Republican member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, asked the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) directly whether "anyone from the UK was able to physically get their hands on these Zip drives".
The NNSA chief, Linton Brooks, did not immediately discount the possibility, according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by the Albuquerque Journal. Instead he answered: "I don't want to seem unresponsive, but I would be more comfortable if we could have this discussion in a different setting."
Mr Brooks did reveal, however, that 15 top-secret disks were prepared in early June for a meeting with a British delegation, and that two of these disks later went missing. Just 11 Los Alamos scientists had access to these disks; all 11 have denied any wrong-doing.
Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project was hatched 60 years ago, has been in a state of lockdown for the past week, with all research projects halted and employees in a state of fear bordering on panic.
The head of Los Alamos, retired admiral Pete Nanos, has publicly questioned the lab's future and threatened scientists with polygraph tests and mass dismissals.
Government critics at Los Alamos claim that Washington is looking for an excuse to purge the lab of scientists wedded to the notion of safeguarding the stockpile of nuclear weapons rather than adding to them. The Bush administration has made little secret of its desire to resume nuclear weapons production for the first time in 15 years to usher in a new generation of "mini-nukes" and atomic bunker-buster bombs for first-strike use.
The Energy Department, which oversees the lab, has announced it will consider open bids when its latest management contract with the University of California runs out next year. High on the list of possible replacements are institutions from President Bush's home state of Texas.
On the other side of the argument, security experts warn that as many as 20 more disks may have gone missing in recent months - a symptom of a perceived laxness at Los Alamos that even government critics acknowledge.
Those familiar with the lab describe restricted data piled up so high in hallways that fire marshals have had to insist on them being destroyed. "I have driven through open gates at Los Alamos into secure areas and there was simply no one around to stop me," said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, an organisation campaigning against nuclear proliferation.
It is open to question, however, whether this laxness has truly threatened national security, or merely been a reflection of a bloated bureaucracy with too little to do and too many secrecy rules to step around.
Government funding has tripled in the past nine years, largely because of a push for new nuclear weapons research by the Republican Party. Until very recently, however, that research has not become a significant part of the agenda. "Stockpile stewardship" has remained the official watchword, with the ever-increasing government grants being seen by scientists and New Mexico politicians as little more than a glorious scam.
Given the atmosphere of secrecy, hard facts about the latest security lapse are hard to come by. Mr Mello's best guess is that the British officials came from the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston, now a private consortium which has provided and maintained Britain's atomic warheads for more than half a century. He further guesses that they were in Los Alamos to talk about Trident missiles. A year ago, the lab began gearing up to be able to produce W-88 warheads for the Trident by 2007.
If Mr Mello is correct, then all sorts of bureaucratic cross-currents come into play. AWE is part-owned by the US defence contractor Lockheed Martin, which in turn is one of the bidders to take over Los Alamos when the University of California contract runs out.
Was the recent security breach really just the fault of clumsy scientists, or something more calculated? One begins to understand that explosive question in committee on Capitol Hill, and the deep reluctance of America's top nuclear manager to give a straight answer.Reuse content