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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 48, July 2000

US Energy Department Savaged Anew for Security Lapses

The barrage of criticism directed for many months at the US Department of Energy (DOE) over security lapses at nuclear weapons laboratories shows little sign of abating. A major recent incident causing concern, as reported in the last issue, was the disappearance of computer hard drives from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Although the drives were safely discovered, and no loss of the highly classified material contained thereon appears to have occurred, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 21 that the incident continued to cause him great concern:

"Now, I take a back seat to no one on issues of security. I am outraged at what has taken place. There are no excuses. It is unacceptable and incomprehensible to me, and I will not rest until I know precisely what happened, when, where, by whom - and why. And while it appears that this situation evolved during a fire of catastrophic proportions, I am particularly angry at how long it took the lab to notify the Department about the incident. … I can assure you that personnel will be held accountable and that disciplinary action will result from this incident. But I will not take action until I have all the facts before me."

One action many Republicans believe Richardson should take is to resign. According to Richard Shelby (Alabama), Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee (June 18): "He should step down, he should be responsible. I don't believe he's served his President well and I don't believe he's served his nation well. … [O]ur libraries would have better security on their books anywhere in America." On June 17, Republican Presidential candidate George W. Bush told a meeting of the US Veterans' Committee in Florida: "America's national security should not be a matter of lost and found… I'll bring this sorry chapter to a close… In my Administration, our national labs will be secure again, our vital information will be sealed again, our nuclear secrets will be secret again."

On June 28, Richardson swore in General John A. Gordon as the Department's first Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), set-up by Congress in 1999, amidst acrimonious wrangling with the Department, in the wake of allegations of Chinese espionage in the nuclear laboratories. In Washington on July 12, a ceremony was held to welcome General Gordon, a former senior intelligence officer and nuclear physicist, to his new post. Secretary Richardson expressed confidence that "the General will strike the right balance: strengthening the science needed to keep our weapons programs strong, while also taking the steps necessary to keep our secrets safe. That is what we must do if we are to restore the full trust of the American people." General Gordon himself did not seek to minimise the difficulties of his task:

"I have a number of friends who wonder why I would ever consider such a job. They seem to think the problems too vexing, the bureaucracy too cumbersome, and the political and public support too weak for a mission that is both declining and too demanding of resources that could be put to other national priorities. … There is reason for scepticism about the probability of success. … But I cannot accept the premise that there is little chance of success… There is support for the mission. It couldn't be any stronger from Congress. … This is an important day…because it signifies to all the members of the National Nuclear security Administration that this nation, this Administration, this Congress, understands the importance of their mission… There are some 40,000 of us feds and contractors, in Washington and in the field, who work hard every day to strengthen our security. I'm delighted to be one of them again."

On June 30, Richardson announced he would be seeking a new relationship between the Department and the University of California, which operates the contracts for managing the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore laboratories. New contractual arrangements would hopefully be in place by September, according to Richardson, enabling the transfer of a number of management and security responsibilities from the University to DOE. According to the Secretary: "The University of California's performance in managing security at our weapons laboratories is unacceptable and must be immediately addressed…" On July 12, these plans were strongly criticised as insufficient by a subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee, many of whose members would like to see a simple termination of the University's authority over the labs. According to Bart Stupak (Democrat - Michigan): "If you have a separate firm or security operation, it is just really another disaster waiting to happen…" In the view of Heather Wilson (Republican - New Mexico): "I think it exacerbates the very problem that we are identifying here… It sounds pretty dysfunctional to me."

Reports: Bush says US secrets would be safe under him, Reuters, June 17; Committee Chair wants Energy Secretary to step down, Reuters, June 18; Richardson rejects calls to resign, Associated Press, June 19; Prepared Statement of US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson before the Senate Armed Services Committee, June 21, 2000, US Energy Department transcript; General Gordon begins tenure as Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, US Energy Department Press Release R-00-174, June 28; Secretary Richardson announces changes with University of California contract, US Energy Department Press Release R-00-177, June 30; Govt. to limit UC at Los Alamos lab, Associated Press, July 1; Prepared remarks for US Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, Swearing-in Ceremony for John Gordon, Washington, D.C., July 12, 2000, US Energy Department transcript; Swearing in remarks, John Gordon, July 12, 2000, US Energy Department transcript; UC lab security plan finds no support on panel, Contra Costa Times, July 12.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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