- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2000

Americans can be reassured: Our nuclear secrets are, today, safe and secure.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson May 26, 1999

Looking back at the statement quoted above, it would appear Energy Secretary Bill Richardson spoke too soon. Indeed, despite this

bold pronouncement last spring, which seemed quite definite at the time, the nation has now had another breakdown in security within our nuclear weapons complex.

This breakdown is the latest in a long string of management failures and frustrations that have plagued the Department of Energy. That history is one of the primary reasons Congress passed a reform plan last fall to reorganize the nuclear weapons complex. This plan which was strongly opposed by Mr. Richardson yet overwhelmingly approved and signed into law created a new semi-autonomous agency within DOE, called the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Under this law which closely followed the recommendations of the President's own Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board the NNSA was to be given sole responsibility for the nation's nuclear weapons, non-proliferation, and naval reactors programs. The intent was to establish a clear chain of command within the nuclear weapons complex one where responsibility and accountability no longer are a question.

Unfortunately, the Energy Department has dragged its feet in implementing these reforms, violating both the spirit and letter of the law, according to the American Legal Division of the Congressional Research Service. Department employees in the field have admitted as much, saying little has changed. And on Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats placed a nearly month long hold on President Clinton's nominee for NNSA Administrator, current CIA Deputy Director Gen. John Gordon, leaving the new agency headless.

So, while the Energy Department resists fundamental reform and others play partisan politics, the problems continue whether it be cost overruns for major construction projects like we have seen at the National Ignition Facility or security lapses at our national laboratories like we're seeing yet again and this central element of our security deteriorates.

The question facing us is, "What should now be done?"

First, we have to get the NNSA administrator in place. In the face of mounting criticism in the aftermath of this incident, Senate Democrats have relented and lifted their hold on Gen. Gordon. The general has a proven track record in the military and at the CIA. Now that he is confirmed, he should be fully supported by the administration and Congress to make the major reforms that are needed. There are currently rumors out of DOE suggest in Gen. Gordon will be isolated and given minimal staff and support. This cannot be allowed to happen. We need someone in charge who has the authority and the responsibility to force necessary changes.

Second, we have to fully and immediately implement the law Congress passed. At this time, the NNSA is an entity more in name than reality. It continues to share a budget and a bureaucracy with the Energy Department and has not yet broken with the past. We need to make this break. Gen. Gordon should be given the chance to make the NNSA a truly semiautonomous entity where the safety and security of our nuclear weapons and secrets are the top priority.

Finally, we have to get to the bottom of the current crisis. A complete and thorough investigation must be conducted, and those responsible must be held accountable. The secretary has proposed that we create a new panel to be headed by Howard Baker and Lee Hamilton to look into the latest incident at Los Alamos. Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton, a former senator and representative respectively, are widely respected on Capitol Hill just as former Sen. Warren Rudman was widely respected when he headed the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board investigation last year.

But we don't need another commission to tell us what is wrong and issue a report that ultimately gathers dust. We have had 20 years of reports and recommendations. What we need to do is implement the law.

As the Rudman Commission warned in its report last year, "Time after time over the past few decades, officials at DOE headquarters and the weapons labs themselves have been presented with overwhelming evidence that their lackadaisical oversight could lead to an increase in the nuclear threat against the United States… . Yet the department's ingrained behavior and values have caused it to continue to falter and fail."

With the nation facing another lapse within our nuclear weapons complex, it would appear these words of warning and not the secretary's balm of assurance are ringing true today.

William "Mac" Thornberry, Texas Republican, is a a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a principal architect of the reform plan approved by Congress last year. He is chairman of the Special Oversight Panel on Department of Energy Reorg

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