Energy secretary seeks veto of defense funding

Richardson objects to his loss of control over U.S. nuclear labs


WASHINGTON -- Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said yesterday that he will probably ask President Clinton to veto the $289 billion defense bill because it would take away much of his control over U.S. nuclear labs.

"I would most likely recommend to the president that he veto the bill," Richardson told reporters. Congress is expected to send the bill to the president shortly after Labor Day.

House and Senate conferees agreed last week to include provisions in the defense bill for the creation of a separately administered agency inside the Energy Department to tighten security at laboratories and plants that design, build and maintain nuclear weapons.

The reorganization plan is in response to allegations that China stole some of the most sensitive U.S. nuclear secrets because of lax security at weapons laboratories administered by the Energy Department.

To be called the National Nuclear Security Administration, the new agency would be managed by an undersecretary of energy, who would have broad authority over policy, budgeting, security and counterintelligence for the nuclear program.

The energy secretary would have no direct authority over the new agency's employees. The secretary could exercise control through the agency's director, who would report to Richardson. The legislation doesn't allow the secretary to "fire, hire or directly order" employees of the agency.

Republicans said the changes -- which would be the most dramatic restructuring of the Energy Department since it was formed in 1977 -- would eliminate tangles in the lines of authority.

"Right now, you have all of these problems at the labs, and no one seems to be responsible," said Republican Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry of Texas, who helped write the agreement.

He said the new agency would replace what he called "a dysfunctional bureaucracy" with a militarylike chain of command from the secretary through the new agency's director to field directors of weapons labs such as Lawrence Livermore in Livermore, Calif., and Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico.

Richardson complained yesterday that the agreement "undermines" his authority to run the Energy Department.

"It's difficult to be in charge when a part of your department has its own apparatus and can hire anybody it wants," he said.

Richardson said he was willing to accept a "semiautonomous agency" within his department so long as he retained control over the agency's personnel and operations.

The White House had no comment on whether Clinton would veto the bill.

The secretary said he has made these changes in response to the allegations of Chinese espionage:

Requiring scientists working on nuclear weapons to take polygraph tests;

Installing software to prevent outside computers from breaking into classified lab systems and stealing information;

Requiring lab workers to get the approval of a superior before moving any classified materials to unclassified computers;

Increasing the department's counterintelligence budget from $2.4 million in 1997 to more than $40 million.

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