Lab Security Crisis Spawns New Agency

By Kutner, Joshua A. | National Defense, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Lab Security Crisis Spawns New Agency


Kutner, Joshua A., National Defense


Energy secretary charges House actions sabotage his authority

The Department of Energy's national laboratories, which are responsible for building and maintaining nuclear weapons, are beefing up security following a recent espionage scandal.

The controversial affair centered around Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese-American who was fired from Los Alamos National Laboratory after he allegedly violated the lab's security regulations. Lee was accused of saving classified information to an insecure server. At press time, no formal charges had been filed against Lee. Nevertheless, the scandal shook up the department and led to numerous resignations and disciplinary actions.

The congressionally enacted defense authorization for fiscal year 2000, meanwhile, calls for heightened security measures within the Department of Energy and its national labs. It requires the use of polygraphs for employees who work with nuclear weapons and establishes a new Commission on Nuclear Weapons Management that would examine and evaluate the "organizational and management structures" for nuclear weapons within the Energy and Defense departments.

House and Senate conferees reached an agreement that would allocate $12.1 billion-$250 million less than President Clinton's request- to the department's programs. The total budget authority for the overall national defense, which includes the Defense Department, is $288.8 billion.

Congress, furthermore, has called for the reorganization of the Energy Department. In June, the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board determined that counterintelligence failures at the department "could be tied to entrenched bureaucracy, management failures, poor accountability, lack of mission focus at [the national] labs and enduring cultural resistance to change." The defense bill reorganizes the department's national security structure and functions, establishing the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) within the department. This semi-autonomous agency would be responsible for nuclear weapons research and production.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told defense writers at a Washington, D.C. breakfast that he "most likely would recommend that the president veto the defense bill." He cited three fundamental reasons for such a recommendation:

"The provision [of a semi-autonomous agency] undermines the secretary's authority in running the [department];

"It is unconstitutional. It has a five-year budgeting process that reports to Congress;

"It blurs the lines of responsibility in the areas of security, counterintelligence, and environment, safety and health."

Richardson suggested that the disputed language of the bill stemmed from partisan conflict.

"I have accepted the concept of a semiautonomous agency," said Richardson. I think that we can work with one that is reasonable ... where a bipartisan compromise is worked out. But this new provision goes way beyond that . …

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