- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2000

Senators blistered Energy Secretary Bill Richardson for failing to appear yesterday at a hearing about his agency's lost nuclear secrets and unanimously approved a CIA deputy to oversee security at the scandalized department.

"We invited Secretary Richardson to appear before our two committees to explain to the representatives here of the American people why some of their most sensitive nuclear-weapons information appears to have walked out the door," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

"Apparently, Secretary Richardson has decided there's something more important to do than account to the American people. Perhaps if the secretary would spend more time ensuring the safety of our nation's nuclear treasures and less time trying to get the vice president elected president, we would not be here today."

Mr. Richardson later told reporters he thought the department had been "adequately represented" at the Senate hearing.

Meanwhile, the Senate voted 97-0 to confirm the No. 2 man at the CIA, Air Force Gen. John A. Gordon, to head the new nuclear-weapons agency within the Energy Department, to be called the National Nuclear Security Administration.

But the move did little to quell criticism from both Republicans and Democrats over the disappearance of nuclear secrets from an already beleaguered federal laboratory.

Sen. Richard H. Bryan, Nevada Democrat, said the latest incident, coming after the espionage controversy involving former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee last year, represents "a culture of indifference about security."

At a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee later in the day, Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, said he was "troubled and incensed" by the loss of nuclear weapons data that could help someone dismantle or possibly make a nuclear device. He accused the administration of "lackadaisical oversight."

As accusations and dismay swirled around the Capitol over the embarrassing loss, investigators at the New Mexico lab began giving polygraph tests to the first of about two dozen nuclear scientists who had free access to the highly secured vault where the nuclear data had been kept on two computer hard drives.

At the Senate hearing, Mr. Richardson's underlings, who appeared in his place, admitted the latest loss of nuclear weapons data may have occurred earlier than was first believed.

Los Alamos National Laboratory Director John Browne testified that the missing computer hard drives could have vanished from the complex as early as the first week of January, the last time employees conducted a complete inventory.

"There is no accountability for secret data," Mr. Browne testified.

Department officials have been saying the drives probably disappeared in late April or early May.

"Wal-Mart has greater security," Republican Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado told the aides to Mr. Richardson.

The absence of Mr. Richardson at a joint hearing of the Senate Energy and Intelligence committees clearly infuriated senators, who made a special point of keeping an empty chair at the witness table for him.

"It's disgraceful that he's not here," said Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican.

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, reminded Mr. Richardson's aides that their boss last year had promised Americans, "Our nation's nuclear secrets are safe and secure."

"His attitude is 'Not to worry, I'm in charge,' " Mr. Kyl said.

Mr. Richardson told reporters that he'll testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday about the lost nuclear secrets. "We have to have more information before I appear," Mr. Richardson said.

At the White House, spokesman Joe Lockhart said President Clinton is angry about the latest security breach at the Energy Department.

"I think anyone involved in this would be angry that we would have this kind of incident, particularly after the amount of time and effort we've spent in tightening security," Mr. Lockhart said.

Mr. Richardson has recommended an independent panel to probe security lapses at Los Alamos. The White House has appointed former Sen. Howard Baker, Tennessee Republican, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, Indiana Democrat, to head the panel.

But Mr. Shelby yesterday called the panel "a political answer."

"What the secretary needs to do is get his house in order," he said on NBC's "Today" show.

Congress, however, is taking its own steps to assure security at the nation's nuclear labs.

The quasi-independent National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was created by Congress as a response to the espionage scandal involving Mr. Lee, who was fired and later indicted by a federal grand jury on 59 counts of illegally removing U.S. nuclear secrets from a computer. The NNSA began operating March 1 over the objections of Mr. Richardson, who has insisted that his agency was policing itself adequately.

"It is now time for General Gordon to make this new entity work," said Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The confirmation of Gen. Gordon, now deputy director of the CIA, had been stalled since early May because Sen. Richard H. Bryan, Nevada Democrat, had placed a "hold" on the nominee. Mr. Bryan said he had no objection to Gen. Gordon but was unhappy with a provision that would have restricted Mr. Richardson's ability to make changes in NNSA personnel.

Democrats agreed to the vote on Gen. Gordon after Republicans promised that the Senate will vote by early July on Madelyn Creedon, President Clinton's nominee to be Gen. Gordon's deputy. Mr. Bunning lifted his "hold" on the Creedon nomination but still complained that Gen. Gordon didn't choose her as his deputy.

"What kind of foolishness is this?" Mr. Bunning said.

Energy Deputy Secretary T.J. Glauthier told senators that agency officials are "pleased" with Gen. Gordon's confirmation. But Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, Alaska Republican and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said that was ironic because the administration has resisted reform.

"You were opposed yesterday," Mr. Murkowski told Mr. Glauthier. "How quickly you turn around."

Mr. Browne recounted for senators how members of a special nuclear emergency response team at Los Alamos learned of the missing computer disks on May 7 when they tried to retrieve the data from a vault as wildfires raged near the laboratory.

"Mistake number one they did not pick up the phone and call me or anybody in my chain of command," Mr. Browne said. "I cannot explain their behavior. I'm not going to use the fire as an excuse … but I will say that during that period, people were under great stress."

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