Guilty Plea in Los Alamos Security Breach

A meth lab search-turned-FBI-counterintelligence investigation — one that worried top nuclear security officials in Washington, D.C., about security at the nation's nuclear labs — has come to an end for the contract government employee at the center of the inquiry.

Tuesday, Jessica Lynn Quintana, 23, a former worker at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, pleaded guilty in federal court to knowingly removing classified information from the national security research laboratory, after she took home sensitive documents and data from the lab last year.

Quintana had been granted a "Q clearance," which provided her with top secret restricted data and national security information, as well as access to some restricted areas at the lab. The government has rescinded her clearance status, and she faces a maximum sentence of up to one year in jail, a $100,000 fine, and a year of supervised release, and possible probation of up to five years.

The case against Quintana started Oct. 17, 2006, when police in Los Alamos, N.M., responded to a domestic disturbance at a trailer park, in which they stumbled across a small methamphetamine lab. After a few twists and turns, investigators found themselves smack in the middle of a counterintelligence inquiry.

From Drugs to Documents

According to the search warrant in the case, police found drug paraphernalia, several glass pipes and a small propane torch at the scene. Officers obtained a search warrant and arrested Justin Stone, Quintana's boyfriend, on a previous bench warrant.

But police also found several pieces of computer hardware containing information they believed to be from Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory.

According to a police statement issued last fall, "During the course of the search, officers realized some of the items seized appeared to belong to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The Los Alamos Laboratory security division was contacted for analysis and confirmation."

Upon this discovery, the FBI dispatched a team of more than a dozen agents to determine how the files wound up in the trailer park.

In the plea agreement filed Tuesday, Quintana admitted that she "knowingly removed documents and computer files containing classified information of the United States from a vault-type room at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and stored such documents and files at places outside Los Alamos National Laboratory, including a backpack in which she transported such documents and materials to her residence, and a computer desk drawer inside her bedroom at her residence."

Quintana was employed by Information Assets Management, Inc. and was under contract to archive classified information at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Officals told ABC News there is no evidence that she passed or sold the information to a third party or foreign government.

Sensitive Nuclear Weapons Information

Documents obtained by ABC News show a police search recovered three computer memory sticks and a compact disc containing photographs. Quintana had apparently taken the materials out of the lab so she could work on archiving the documents at her home.

In a written statement after the discovery last October, Los Alamos director Michael Anastasio said, "I regard this matter as one of utmost concern to all of us."

"There is no question this should have been taken far more seriously a long time ago by Los Alamos. The fact that this could still be happening is just absurd," said Danielle Brian, at the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group based in Washington.

Scrutinizing Security at Los Alamos

Security at Los Alamos has been scrutinized in recent years after several security breaches:

In 1999, a weapons scientist was accused of stealing nuclear weapons secrets. He eventually pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information.

In 2000, the FBI investigated missing hard drives at the lab. The drives, which belonged to a nuclear emergency search team, were found days later behind a photocopy machine.

In 2004, an administrative error led security officials to believe that computer disks containing nuclear secrets had been misplaced, and operations at the lab were ordered to essentially shut down. An FBI investigation concluded the disks never existed.

After that incident, the Department of Energy instituted policies to reduce the amount of files and materials that can be placed on a computer disk.

Other security breaches at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Y-12 nuclear weapons production facility and storage site exposed a series of lost security keys at both sites.

'Serious Problems With Security Management'

In congressional testimony in 2005, Linton Brooks, then administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said the 2004 incident "revealed serious problems with security management at Los Alamos."

After the October 2006 breach, Brooks said, "I have directed NNSA's chief of defense nuclear security to personally investigate the facts at Los Alamos, and I have sent a headquarters cyber security team to ensure that there is full compliance with current departmental directives." The Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration also proceeded to launch internal investigations into the apparent security breach.

But the system's flaws didn't seem to be repaired fast enough to save Brooks' job.

Brooks was forced out of his NNSA post in January. In announcing the resignation, energy secretary Samuel Bodman referenced the "serious security breach" a few months earlier at Los Alamos, and other management issues that have plagued the National Nuclear Security Administration.

"While I believe that the current NNSA management has done its best to address these concerns, I do not believe that progress in correcting these issues has been adequate," Bodman's statement said.

"I repeatedly have told DOE and laboratory employees, and, in particular, senior managers, we must be accountable to the president and the American people, not just for efforts, but for results," he said.