Report by Clinton panel lambastes DOE security

`Dysfunctional' agency blamed for lapses at nuclear weapons labs

June 15, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A Department of Energy "saturated with cynicism" and "an arrogant disregard for authority" has rendered its top-secret nuclear weapons laboratories vulnerable to Chinese espionage, President Clinton's investigative panel has determined.

In its report, the panel concluded that House investigators had probably overstated the damage resulting from laboratory security breaches in last month's celebrated report of the House Select Committee on U.S. National Security and China.

It pointedly recommends retaining programs that allow foreign and immigrant scientists to work at the laboratories.

The study, set to be released today, largely clears the Clinton White House of responsibility, instead blaming a "dysfunctional" Cabinet department that has proved "incapable of reforming itself."

The investigative panel, chaired by a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, Warren B. Rudman, recommends a radical restructuring of the Energy Department to either carve out a semiautonomous agency within the department for its nuclear weapons programs or to break those programs out into an independent agency, such as NASA.

That would remove them from a culture that had tolerated lax security, the panel suggested.

"It is time for the nation's leaders to act decisively in the defense of America's national security," the report concludes.

The panel, formed out of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, could have particular influence. Its members include Rudman, who has the respect of both political parties, and Sidney Drell, deputy director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, who for years has sided with the Energy Department against critics who have called for the agency's elimination.

Yet the report -- and its unusually harsh language -- will almost certainly bolster some Republicans who have been pushing for the dismantling of the Energy Department.

A senior White House national security official cautioned, "We want to look very carefully at these recommendations before making any judgment."

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson rejected the panel's major recommendations.

An autonomous agency within the department would force him to create separate security systems for the nuclear weapons research programs and other equally vulnerable programs, such as the environmental cleanup division, which controls stores of plutonium. That would create "the very fragmentation that we have been working hard to correct," Richardson said.

The report's language is unsparing. Inefficient personnel screening, casually monitored foreign scientist visits, "feckless" systems to control classified documents, a "culture of arrogance," and "naive" or "dangerously irresponsible" computer security methods combined to "create an espionage scandal waiting to happen," the report says.

To be fair, the panel said, the Clinton administration has tried to solve the problem.

Richardson "is on the right track" with his new security measures, the panel said, though he might be overstating their impact.

Pub Date: 6/15/99

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