- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2000

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. Mr. Byrd said he "wouldn't have any hesitancy" about voting to hold Mr. Richardson in contempt of Congress for ducking the session.
"You have waited and you have shown a contempt of Congress that borders on a supreme arrogance of this institution," Mr. Byrd said.
Mr. Richardson said he skipped the hearing because he first "wanted to get all the facts."
"I disagree with what you said, senator," the former congressman told Mr. Byrd. "And in fact, after I look at my career, being a congressman was the best job I ever had. And I think to say that I've been contemptible is not correct."
The energy secretary and his aides focused most of their testimony on the failure of lab employees to report the disappearance of the hard drives for several weeks.
"I am particularly angry about how long it took the lab to notify the department about the incident," Mr. Richardson said.
But Mr. Warner told the secretary, "We are holding you accountable. These incidents happened on your watch. Like the captain of the ship, you must bear full accountability."
That prompted Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, to comment, "I suggest that the captain of the ship is not Bill Richardson but is Bill Clinton."
Mr. Inhofe listed 10 "willful and deliberate" security breaches by the Clinton administration, including switching the authority on export licensing from the State Department to the Commerce Department, granting waivers for guided-missile technology to be sold to the Chinese and declassifying nuclear information in 1995.
"Now, my question to you is a yes or no question," Mr. Inhofe said to Mr. Richardson. "Can you sit here today and tell this committee that the actions of the Clinton administration that I outlined specifically are not either totally or partially responsible for the compromises that have been taking place?"
"Senator, I you're not going to get a yes or no answer," Mr. Richardson said.
"Even partially responsible, Secretary Richardson?" Mr. Inhofe responded.
"No," Mr. Richardson said. "Senator … let's be bipartisan. My administration, this president has been good on security."
Mr. Richardson promised senators that he will discipline those responsible for taking the computer disks from a vault in a supposedly secure "Division X" at Los Alamos. Investigators now believe the hard drives disappeared around March 28; they resurfaced last week behind a photocopying machine in a section of the lab that had been searched thoroughly twice.
"I can assure you and every member of this committee that personnel will be held accountable and that disciplinary action will result from this incident," Mr. Richardson said. "But I will not take action until I have all the facts before me."
He said he welcomed the Senate's confirmation last week of Gen. John A. Gordon, second in command at the CIA, to head a quasi-independent agency to oversee nuclear security at his department. Congress created the post as a response to an espionage scandal involving former Los Alamos computer scientist Wen Ho 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.

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