- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2000

On Sunday, The Washington Post gave unusual front-page, above-the-fold treatment to an obituary. Well, technically the article would not qualify as an obit since the subject the Los Alamos National Laboratory's nuclear weapons program has not fully expired just yet.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the report titled "Dark Cloud Hangs over Los Alamos" as a kind of ghoulish death watch or the print equivalent of an electronic life-signs monitor, tracking the ebbing away of the expertise and intellectual vitality that has for three generations made this laboratory a national treasure.

Los Alamos' death throes should come as no surprise, though. They are the inexorable result of a denuclearization agenda that has animated the Clinton-Gore administration's "stewardship" of the Energy Department's nuclear weapons complex.

To be sure, the hemorrhage of the remaining handful of physicists with firsthand experience in the design, testing and long-term maintenance of the U.S. nuclear deterrent is partly a function of actuarial factors and attractive early retirement packages.

Indisputably, it has been further exacerbated by the morale-crushing environment at the Lab in the wake of investigations into security lapses that have resulted in the incarceration and prosecution of one longtime Los Alamos scientist, Wen Ho Lee, and that are causing others now under scrutiny in connection with errant, highly classified hard drives to incur each week multi-thousand-dollar lawyer's bills.

Then there is the lingering effect of a conflagration deliberately set by the U.S. government that destroyed some 400 homes in the community and threatened to immolate parts of the laboratory itself. Such considerations alone would doubtless prompt at least some of the nation's most brilliant scientists with rarified computer skills much in demand in the private sector to seek employment elsewhere.

The truth is, however, that as grim as the situation is at Los Alamos it is but a microcosm of the ever-more-moribund condition of the nuclear weapons complex as a whole. And the responsibility for that condition lies squarely with a Clinton-Gore administration that has deliberately appointed incompetents and anti-nuclear ideologues to run the military part of the Energy Department into the ground.

This began under President Clinton's first energy secretary, Hazel O'Leary a woman whose lack of expertise in the nuclear weapons arena was matched by her utter disdain for that part of her portfolio, and for those who had devoted their professional lives to it. Her contempt became a matter of public knowledge when in December 1993 she announced her determination to declassify "miles" of secret documents she thought need no longer required safeguarding: "I want it clear that I'm gonna be, as usual, the person pushing harder to get it done [i.e., declassifying information] and someone else has the job of looking more carefully at the national security interest."

Mrs. O'Leary used her four-year tenure as energy secretary to undermine public confidence in the U.S. nuclear weapons program even as she has systematically acted through policy decisions, budgetary actions and programmatic steps to jeopardize that program's ability over time to maintain the safety, reliability and credibility of the nation's nuclear deterrent.

This sorry record was documented in a scathing assessment issued near the end of the O'Leary era by the House National Security Committee. On the occasion of its release in October 1996, Committee Chairman Floyd Spence, South Carolina, declared:

"The past four years have witnessed the dramatic decline of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and the uniquely skilled work force that is responsible for maintaining our nuclear deterrent. The administration's laissez-faire approach to stewardship of the nuclear stockpile, within the broader context of its support for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, is clearly threatening the nation's long-term ability to maintain a safe and reliable nuclear stockpile… . In my mind, it's no longer a question of the administration's 'benign neglect' of our nation's nuclear forces, but instead, a compelling case can be made that it is a matter of 'erosion by design.' "

Unfortunately, neither of Mrs. O'Leary's successors two politicians chosen for their Hispanic-American heritage rather than the experience needed to redress their predecessor's mis- and malfeasance have made appreciable course corrections. To the contrary, under Federico Pena and Bill Richardson, the wrecking operation has largely continued apace.

As a result, the United States today has no capability to manufacture significant quantities of nuclear weapons. Instead, what remains of its production complex is working "24/7" to dismantle what remains of our deterrent arsenal.

Worse yet, rather than focus exclusively on such pressing problems as how to maintain to say nothing of upgrade that obsolescing arsenal, enormous laboratory resources (human and financial) are being diverted to dubious purposes. These include figuring out ways in which to maintain the Russian nuclear weapons program's scientific and physical infrastructure and how to give away seed-corn technology developed by the national labs at enormous taxpayer expense.

What is more, Clinton-Gore arms-control theologians insist the labs' scientists must be denied the one tool proven effective in assuring the continued safety, reliability and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal: realistic underground testing. Incredibly, the administration is proceeding to implement the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at a cost of untold millions of dollars and thousands of manhours as though the Senate had not decisively rejected that accord as inconsistent with America's national security interests.

Now that Gov. George W. Bush has made the vice president's responsibility for the erosion of the U.S. military a major element of his campaign for the White House, he would be well advised to add to his indictment the Clinton-Gore legacy of denuclearizing the United States a legacy that may well prove among the most time-consuming, costly and challenging to undo.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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