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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 39, July - August 1999

Pressure on For Radical Overhaul of Energy Department

As reported in the last two issues, the publication in late May of the Cox Report detailing alleged serious Chinese espionage at US nuclear weapons laboratories has led to numerous, influential and strident calls for a radical overhaul of the US Energy Department's organizational and procedural handling of the American nuclear weapons programme. A degree of reorganization now seems inevitable, but the nature and scope of the reforms remains hotly contested. There is a strong sentiment in Congress for the creation within the Department of a new, independent or semi-autonomous agency dedicated to supervising security arrangements. An independent agency is fiercely opposed by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who argues both that the Department is putting its own house in order and that such a body would run the risk of confusing the situation and diminishing his own ability to keep on top of developments.

Proposals for a new Nuclear Weapon Agency are contained within the $289 billion Fiscal Year 2000 Defense Authorization Bill. Under the terms of the legislation, the Agency would have a separate staff and budget and operate in isolation from the rest of the Department. According to one of the measure's main drafters, Representative Mac Thornberry (Republican - Texas), on 11 August: "the changes in this Bill are long overdue. Over the last ten years alone there have been nearly twenty reports critical of the Department's management of the nuclear weapons complex." However, the same day, Richardson told reporters that, because the Energy reform component of the Bill "clearly goes too far," he "would most likely recommend to the President that he veto" the legislation, expected to be presented to him on Congress's return from Summer recess in early September.

An earlier version of the legislation, adopted by the Senate by 96 votes to 1 on 21 July, set out the outlines of a semiautonomous Agency for Nuclear Stewardship on which Congress and Administration seemed able to agree. Richardson issued an up-beat statement: "I believe it's critical that we pass legislation this year to codify reforms and accelerate security and counterintelligence improvements. The Bill approved by the Senate today is a good start. It is my hope that as action moves to the House-Senate conference, we can work to clarify the provisions adopted today..." The White House, however, issued a more cautious statement, noting prophetically that the final legislation may prove too radical a departure to accept: "If language is adopted that would undermine Secretary Richardson's ability to effectively manage the Department, including efforts to reorganize the Department's handling of counterintelligence and broader security matters, the Secretary would recommend that the President veto the Bill."

One of the clearest summations of the Administration's concerns about an independent nuclear weapons agency was given by Richardson in 22 June testimony to a joint hearing of four Senate Committees, on Intelligence, Armed Services, Governmental Affairs and National Resources: "An autonomous agency would partition the laboratory system and ultimately undermine the science on which our national security depends. ... A bureaucratic Berlin Wall between the weapons labs and science labs would hamper the joint research they perform and weaken the quality of basic science at the weapons labs. The nuclear weapons programme depends on unclassified, cutting-edge science; requires engagement with the other national laboratories and contact with the international community; and needs overall science excellence to recruit and retain the best and brightest scientific minds for the weapons programme..."

At the centre of the recent 'spy scandal' storm is the allegation that Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese-born US scientist dismissed from Los Alamos National Laboratory in March, transferred highly sensitive weapons information to the Chinese Government. On 17 August, Robert Vrooman, former Chief of Counterintelligence at the laboratory, made an equally dramatic counterclaim, telling the Washington Post that Mr. Lee's dismissal was in part racially motivated: "[While] details of this investigation [into Mr. Lee] are still classified, it can be said at this time that Mr. Lee's ethnicity was a major factor." The entire case against the scientist, Mr. Vrooman stated, "was screwed up because there was nothing there - it was built on thin air." Speaking on CBS television on 31 July, Mr. Lee spoke in his own defence: "The truth is I'm innocent... Suddenly, they told me I'm a traitor... I just don't understand this." Secretary Richardson, however, speaking on television on 3 August, was having none of it: "The suspect unfairly tried to use the race card... He tried to portray himself as a victim after he massively violated our security system."

On 12 August, Richardson had the unpleasant task of unveiling a damning report by the US Inspector General into his own Department's investigation of possible espionage at Los Alamos. Richardson stated sombrely:

"I believe the Office of Inspector General has done a through, fair and independent review, and I accept its conclusions and criticisms about the problems in this Department. This report makes it clear that Department of Energy political and career management failed to give necessary attention to counterintelligence and security. That, combined with the lack of accountability, unclear communication with other agencies and dysfunctional reporting relationships, was fertile ground for the problems that occurred during the investigation. There was a total breakdown in the system and there's plenty of blame to go round."

One major criticism in the report, on which Richardson dwelt at some length, was that the "espionage suspect [Mr. Lee] should have had his job assignment changed to limit his access to classified information much sooner than it was, and cooperation with the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] should have been stronger..." Responding to this failure, however, would not be easy: "I'm frustrated that the factual record isn't clear about who knew what when about the suspect's access, and therefore should have acted. In some cases, there isn't sufficiently strong evidence in this report to carry out disciplinary actions." Despite this confusion, there were three lab employees whose responsibilities were clear...and I'm asking that the lab take appropriate action to discipline them."

Earlier, on 6 August, another report, by the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, was equally scathing about the handling of the investigation into Mr. Lee's activities. In the words of the Republican Chair of the Committee Fred Thompson (Tennessee): "we find that when it came to the handling of a matter involving national security and extreme sensitivity, key officials in our Government were beset with communication failures and poor judgment..." Much of the Lee controversy concerns the possible transfer of sensitive information about the W-88 warhead. In the words of another member of the Committee, Democratic Senator Joseph Liebermann of Connecticut (6 August): "Time and time again I saw things that baffled me in this investigation... The bottom line is that the investigation into the loss of the W-88 nuclear warhead design was not a comedy of errors but a tragedy of errors."

The security situation at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was strongly criticised by the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on 7 July. According to a press release issued by the Chairs of the Committee (Tom Bliley, Republican - Virginia) and Subcommittee (Fred Upton, Republican - Michigan), a visit by the Subcommittee to the laboratory in May this year revealed numerous, alarming deficiencies which, taken together, "demonstrate that the Administration's announced reforms and heightened security measures have not yet achieved the success that Secretary Richardson has repeatedly told the American public they already have."

On 26 June, President Clinton admitted for the first time that Chinese espionage had occurred during his terms of office - an admission compelled by the Lee case: "[T]here has been a 20-year problem with lax security at the labs... [W]hat I said [before] was that I didn't suspect that any actual breaches of security had occurred. ... [The Lee case is] something we know now that I didn't know then. ... We did have any specific instance, as we do now, of the off-loading of the computer..."

Also on 26 June, the Energy Department's Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs, Victor Reis, tendered his resignation, in apparent dispute with Secretary Richardson over the future organization of the nuclear weapons complex.

Editor's note: on 27 July, the US House of Representatives voted to assent to President Clinton's request for a one-year renewal of Normal Trading Relations (NTR - previously known as Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status) with China. The vote, after a heated debate featuring many calls to punish China for its alleged espionage, was 260-170.

Reports: Clinton says misspoke on China spying scandal, Reuters, 26 June; Energy's nuke weapons chief quits, Associated Press, 26 June; Audit - Livermore Lab's security lax, Associated Press, 30 June; Congressmen critical of security at California nuclear weapons lab, United States Information Service, 7 July; Statement of Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson on the Senate Bill to reorganize the Department of Energy, US Energy Department Press Release, 21 July; Senate wants new nuclear labs agency, Associated Press, 21 July; Senate backs new oversight for nuclear labs, Reuters, 22 July; China welcomes 'wise' House trade renewal, Reuters, 28 July; Lee denies giving China secrets, Associated Press, 2 August; Richardson calls Lee's claims 'bunk', Associated Press, 3 August; Report - Los Alamos probe 'flawed', Associated Press, 5 August; Senate Panel criticizes probe of China spy case, Reuters, 6 August; Richardson backs defense bill veto, Associated Press, 11 August; Richardson announces results of inquiries related to espionage investigation, US Energy Department Press Release R-99-213, 12 August; US lacks evidence in China spy probe, ex aide says, Reuters, 17 August.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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