Energy chief's latest mission is all guts, no glory

Richardson awaits opportunity as he handles tough jobs for Clinton

June 17, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Bill Richardson has long been used to getting tough assignments from President Clinton.

He's been asked to pass a trade bill over the objections of higher-ups in the House Democratic leadership; to travel to the home turf of the world's worst bullies to rescue American hostages; to represent the United States at the United Nations amid anti-American hostility; and to find a job for a woman later revealed to be Clinton's illicit girlfriend.

But more than any of his other missions, his latest looks like all guts and no glory: As energy secretary, he is the administration's chief flak-catcher for the Chinese spy scandal, which has been described by some as the most damaging theft of U.S. nuclear secrets ever.

The latest blow landed this week, when an investigative panel named by Clinton concluded that the department was "saturated with cynicism" and "an arrogant disregard for authority" that left it vulnerable to Chinese espionage. Those findings gave momentum to a congressional drive to rob the secretary of responsibility for the security of nuclear research.

Yesterday, Richardson delivered a counterpunch by naming Eugene E. Habiger, a retired four-star general formerly in charge of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, as the department's new security "czar."

But week after week, you can catch Richardson on the talk shows or before Congress fielding hardballs: What did the president know, and when did he know it? Why did it take so long for the administration to plug leaks at the nuclear laboratories, after it became clear that the places were sieves? How can you be sure it won't happen again?

Is this any job for a flesh-pressing, cowboy politician with boundless ambition who took the post in the hope that it would advance his career?

"I have always been motivated by challenge," the secretary says.

The fact is, Richardson says, he was blindsided by the espionage scandal. He says he knew nothing of what was brewing when he accepted the Cabinet post a year ago. After he reported for duty in August, he says, he was briefed on the intelligence investigation under way, "but I didn't know the magnitude of this problem."

The same was true in the fall of 1997, when he was asked by John Podesta, Richardson's close friend and now Clinton's chief of staff, to find a job at the United Nations for Monica Lewinsky. Richardson responded so quickly that Lewinsky's head spun. But Richardson says he learned the truth about her relationship with the president only months later, along with the rest of the country.

Damage already done

It's probably his good fortune that Richardson did not take over the department until long after the spy damage had been done. Almost all the information that U.S. officials believe the Chinese stole from the department's nuclear labs in Los Alamos, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., appears to have been obtained during the late 1970s and 1980s.

Clinton and other administration officials have been faulted for failing to respond quickly once those breaches were first detected in 1995. Yet by the time the full story went public in March, Richardson had already begun adopting new security measures and had moved quickly to fire Taiwanese-born computer scientist Wen Ho Lee, who is alleged to have passed secrets to China from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

So when the tough questions come, the secretary usually says he can't speak about what went on before he arrived. "My strategy has been to focus on the present and the future, fixing the problem," he explains.

His strategy seems to be succeeding with would-be critics in Congress.

"Republicans and Democrats understand that with Secretary Richardson has come real change," said Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat who is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "If he'd been secretary of energy dating back to the 1980s, things would have been different."

The investigative panel that recommended this week separating nuclear weapons research from the rest of the department also praised Richardson's efforts so far to tighten security.

But Richardson says his recurring nightmare "is another scandal breaking on my watch."

"You're constantly dealing with this issue every day: following up, implementing, making sure there isn't some leak or problem at one of the labs, sending security teams out almost on a weekly basis to make sure our counterintelligence plans are being followed."

Richardson also faces the unpleasant task of disciplining department officials whose negligence allowed the theft of secrets to go on for so long. On the advice of longtime colleague Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, Richardson did not follow staff recommendations that he discipline some laboratory employees, at least until he can examine possible responsibility among top-level department appointees. Richardson instead ordered a broader review, due by the end of July.

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