Jury to Probe Los Alamos
Boyer, Dave, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told hostile senators yesterday that a grand jury is investigating the disappearance of nuclear secrets at Los Alamos National Laboratory as lawmakers heaped scorn to his face on his job performance.
In his first appearance on Capitol Hill since news of the missing computer hard drives became public, Mr. Richardson received a frosty reception from the Senate Armed Services Committee and even had to listen to a political eulogy of sorts from Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat.
"I think it's a rather sad story: that you had a bright and brilliant career [and] that you would never again receive the support of the Senate of the United States for any office to which you might be appointed," Mr. Byrd told the Cabinet member who's been mentioned as a possible running mate for Vice President Al Gore.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, told Mr. Richardson, "Whether you continue as secretary of energy is ultimately the president's call. I think it's time for you to go - to be responsible, to be accountable to the American people."
For his part, Mr. Richardson told senators, "I will keep tackling the tough problems." He said FBI Director Louis J. Freeh informed him yesterday that investigators are analyzing fingerprints on the recovered computer hard drives and are focusing on several Los Alamos employees "who have offered conflicting statements."
"Based upon the investigation by the FBI so far, there is no evidence of espionage," Mr. Richardson said. "Nor is there evidence that the drives have ever left the Los Alamos [laboratory]."
A grand jury has been convened in New Mexico "to examine issues related to the case," Mr. Richardson said.
Even if the drives have not been compromised, those involved in the disappearance and mysterious reappearance could face felony charges for mishandling nuclear secrets. Officials said DOE regulations requiring any security breach to be reported within eight hours were violated.
But senators of both parties were skeptical of Mr. Richardson's assurances even before they took him into a closed session to discuss the sensitive topic in more detail.
"He said, `No evidence so far,' " said Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and chairman of the committee, adding that the secretary's qualified language did not reassure him.
Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, said Mr. Richardson and his top aides cannot guarantee that laboratory employees had not "taken it, driven home, downloaded it into some other computer or made some other copy."
And asked by reporters later why he believes there was no spying in this case, Mr. Richardson qualified his comments again.
"There does not appear to be espionage involved, but this is being determined by the FBI investigation," he said.
Mr. Warner said he will introduce a bill, probably tomorrow, that would establish a bipartisan congressional commission to evaluate Mr. Richardson's job performance "if he remains on."
The panel would also report on whether management of the nation's nuclear weapons program should remain under the Energy Department, be transferred back to the Defense Department or be refashioned as an independent agency.
Mr. Richardson's failure to appear at a Senate hearing last week on the issue still rankled many senators. …