Monday, February 20, 2006

The Energy Department is downgrading its counterintelligence unit in what officials say is a “hostile takeover” by the intelligence office.

Bush administration officials say the reorganization is part of a plan led by Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell, a former Senate staff member.

“This [consolidation] is ostensibly for better efficiencies,” said one official who opposes the move. “But counterintelligence will be less effective and less of a defensive program.”

A second official said the counterintelligence office consolidation is part of a “hostile takeover by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen,” head of Energy’s intelligence office.

This official said the downgrading of counterintelligence is apparently part of a larger debate within the Bush administration over the role of counterintelligence, identifying and neutralizing foreign spying activities and agents.

Top U.S. counterintelligence posts at the CIA, the FBI and the office of the National Counterintelligence Executive are vacant or held by acting officials.

The leadership shortage comes at a time when senior intelligence officials are divided over whether counterspying should be an offensive and strategic activity aimed at aggressively halting foreign spies, or should be passive and limited to supporting U.S. spying efforts abroad.

Craig Stevens, an Energy spokesman, said the “integration plan” to combine counterintelligence and intelligence is undergoing final review by Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman.

“Secretary Bodman believes that there is no substitute for good intelligence information,” Mr. Stevens said in a statement. “He also believes that in order to obtain and effectively utilize this information, it is in the best interest of American citizens that we streamline our intelligence efforts at the Department of Energy.”

The goal is to simplify information-sharing within the department and related agencies and reduce costs so more resources are devoted to intelligence.

The statement did not directly address the question of whether counterintelligence will be weakened. However, he said department leaders do not think combining counterintelligence within the intelligence office will weaken counterspying efforts.

The Energy Department and its national laboratories are charged with monitoring foreign nuclear programs.

The Energy counterintelligence office is an independent unit that serves an entirely different function. It is charged with stopping foreign spies from penetrating Energy facilities and stealing nuclear secrets.

The department has been under fire for poor security for more than a decade. A CIA assessment damage from 1999 stated that “China obtained by espionage classified U.S. nuclear weapons information” on every deployed nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal, including the missile-sized W-88 and the never developed neutron bomb.

The source of the espionage has never been identified, although U.S. counterintelligence officials have said they suspect that Los Alamos weapons designer Wen Ho Lee passed the data.

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