Linkin Park, Nuclear Research and Obsession

An employee of a federal nuclear research facility had an obsession and access to a sophisticated computer network. The result was a stalker who terrified a family.

What does a federal nuclear weapons research facility have to do with a rock and roll singer? Sandia National Laboratories is one of the Department of Energy’s three nuclear weapons research facilities and located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was created as a center for developing the technology that goes into nuclear bombs and it is run by the Sandia Corporation

Normally, one would be hard-pressed to think of a connection between rock and roll and nuclear technology. But in this case, there is a link.

An employee of Sandia National Laboratories at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico apparently had a lot of time on her hands. According to an investigator for the Department of Defense Criminal Investigative Service, Devon Townsend said she only had about 30 minutes of work per day to occupy her time. She also had an obsession.

Too much free time, personal obsession, and access to government computers can be a deadly combination. When the person with the obsession has a security clearance with access to nuclear materials, and is using a computer in a government research facility to track down and harass another person for no apparent reason, alarm bells start going off in federal agencies.

Devon Townsend apparently had a fascination with a band called Linkin Park. She liked music and was familiar with a number of popular bands. In looking at her entries in MySpace, she seems like a normal young woman who enjoyed pizza and Coke. She notes that some people describe her as a “computer nerd” and her quote, which seems apt in retrospect, is “Oh what a tangled web we weave.”

For those who are not familiar with the band, Linkin Park, according to an entry in Wikipedia, the band is known for “adapting the Nu-metal genre into a radio friendly style, creating many successful singles.” I don’t pretend to understand what that means but they have sold 50 million albums so, if nothing else, a lot of people listen to the band and buy their albums.

Chester Bennington is the frontman and lead vocalist for the band. HIs wife, Talinda Bennington, reported receiving anonymous phone calls in which the caller called her a “whore” and made statements such as “I know where you live”, “I watch your kids” and “I have complete control of your life.”

Townsend used her computer server, located in “a secure area … requiring a coded passcard” to read Bennington’s e-mails and to listen to his voice mails by hacking into PayPal, AOL, Yahoo!, and Bennington’s cell-phone billing records. According to the investigator’s report, she also changed the Bennington family’s Verizon account password to “Who is doing this to you?” Townsend reportedly had Q-level security clearance allowing nonmilitary personnel to access nuclear materials.

The Bennington’s hired a private investigator from Alabama to look into the case. “On a steady diet of pizza and Coke, he worked seven days a week, analyzing tens of thousands of messages that had gone in and out of the Benningtons’ email and voicemail accounts, assembling a detailed timeline of the attacks.”

Townsend admitted to the investigator in a signed statement that she made the phone calls and intercepted their e-mail and other personal information. When asked to rate on a scale of one to ten how threatened she thought the Bennington’s would react to her phone calls, she rated it a ten. But she said her personal actions were only worthy of a two on the same scale. When asked by the private investor why she did all of this, Wired’s David Kushner reports that Townsend said she was bored. Her job only took about half an hour a day and it was a way to pass the time.

According to Wired, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the DOE agency that oversees Sandia, issued a statement that said: “Multiple layers of stringent security controls were in place at the time the incident occurred and the security of Sandia’s network was never compromised. Although the Laboratory is planning to improve Internet monitoring capabilities for outbound connections, no policy changes have been required as a result of the incident. The only completely effective way to prevent abuse of Internet access is to deny it entirely, and that is not a viable option for a research and development laboratory.”

Townsend has pleaded guilty to charges including stalking, computer hacking, and trafficking in music recordings at a sentencing hearing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The former Sandia National Laboratories employee faces up to five years imprisonment and fines of up to $250,000 for each offense. She is now a “former employee” of Sandia National Laboratories.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47