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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 40, September - October 1999

US National Nuclear Security Administration To Be Set Up Following China Spying Allegations

On October 5, President Clinton signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 (law S. 1059). Among the law's many provisions - and dispensation of a staggering total of $289 billion of funds - is the establishment of a new National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous body to oversee the Energy Department's nuclear weapons programme. The NNSA has emerged as Congress's response to the May 1999 report of the Cox Committee which detailed widespread and systematic Chinese espionage in US nuclear laboratories. Signing the law, Clinton made clear his deep unhappiness about major aspects of the new body, in particular the way it diminishes the role and effectiveness of the Secretary of Energy (see Documents and Sources for extracts from the President's statement): he could only block the proposal, however, by vetoing the whole Act, which includes among other measures important improvements in pay and conditions for the armed forces.

Many Democrats shared the President's concerns. According to Representative John Dingell (Michigan), who summed up the fears of colleagues in a House debate on September 15, the NNSA "returns us to the dark secretive days...when the Atomic Energy Commission lied to everybody". However, Republicans were generally confident. Senator Pete Domenici (New Mexico) said on September 22: "I think within a couple of years you will see security in much better shape". For his part, on September 26 Energy Secretary Richardson said he would not ask the President to veto the Act, and was prepared to make the new arrangement work as well as possible: "It's critical that the troops get their pay rise and...this is an important national security bill. ... I believe we can interpret the provisions so there are clear lines of responsibility and the Secretary is in charge and we protect our national security". Richardson, however, expressed mortification when, on September 28, the Senate voted by 96 votes to three to adopt a Fiscal Year 2000 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act which includes numerous nuclear weapons-related funding cuts for his Department, including funds to help prevent any further computer espionage. According to a statement issued by Richardson on the eve of the vote:

"By denying $35 million in funds for cyber-security upgrades, it will be impossible to provide real-time cyber-intrusion detection and protection for all 70 DOE sites. Nor [will the legislation] provide sufficient finds for DOE to enforce the foreign visits and assignments program to prevent unauthorized release of sensitive information; to properly secure plutonium and other weapons grade material at DOE sites; or to provide centralized management and accountability for security".

On September 24, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Republican - Missouri) announced the establishment of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) task force to investigate the Justice Department's role in a number of key controversies, including its part in the investigation of the espionage claims. On September 29, the FBI named Stephen W. Dillard, head of the Bureau's office in Jackson, Mississippi, as the Chair of the task force. Speaking on October 4, President Clinton wished the FBI investigation well. In a clear reference to the case of espionage suspect Wen Ho Lee, a physicist at the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory who has yet to be charged with any offence, the President noted: "They ought to do whatever they can to find out whatever the truth is... This is another lesson that we should not assume anyone's guilt, ever. We should let investigations take their course".

On September 19, a report by the Department of Energy's Office of Independent Oversight into the current state of security in the nuclear laboratories accorded a "satisfactory" rating to Los Alamos, and a "marginal" rating to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and Sandia National Laboratory. Secretary Richardson welcomed the report: "It's good to get a decent report card on security measures... Security at our labs is good and getting better. The labs deserve credit for their improvements rather than continued criticism".

On August 23, senior Energy Department official Notra Trulock - a key figure in the Department's heavily criticised investigation into possible Chinese espionage - resigned. On August 25, Trulock told Fox television that he had been prevented from discussing the issue candidly with members of Congress: "One of the senior officials told me that the reason that she did not allow me to bring the Hill on this case was the Congressional Republicans...were only interested in hurting the President on his China policy… ". On August 13, a report by the US Inspector General had concluded that Energy Department officials were not prevented from participating candidly in Congressional investigations - a conclusion which Trulock described as "the last straw".

Reports: Espionage officials in US China case quits - report, Reuters, August 24; Govt. denies forcing out employee, Associated Press, August 25; China-US nuclear probe blocked by politics - Trulock, Reuters, August 30; 3 House passes military pay rise, Associated Press, September 15; Security lapses seen at weapons labs, Associated Press, September 19; Senate ready to OK new nuke agency, Associated Press, September 22; US Senate backs new oversight for nuclear labs, Reuters, 22 September; Senate votes for Energy Dept reform, Associated Press, September 22; Clinton softens on defense spending, Associated Press, September 23; Alleged China spying probe broadens, Associated Press, September 23; Senate task force to look at Justice Department, Reuters, September 24; Richardson backs defense bill, Associated Press, September 26; Richardson - Conference Report will harm national security, basic research, US Department of Energy Press Release R-99-261, September 27; Congress denies Energy Dept. funds, Associated Press, September 28; FBI veteran heads China spy probe, Associated Press, September 29; Clinton says hopes China spying probe finds truth, Reuters, October 4.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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