The Energy Department's counterintelligence director yesterday fired back at congressional critics of the administration's handling of the nation's nuclear security, charging that key figures on Capitol Hill share blame for any lapses.

The accusation from Edward J. Curran, a longtime FBI official now serving in the department's top anti-espionage post, came as Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said he "most likely" will fire some officials at the department and its laboratories as a result of China's reported theft of nuclear secrets from the labs.

"There are individuals at the Department of Energy and the labs that, in my judgment, did not do their jobs," Richardson said on "Fox News Sunday."

There were "communications breakdowns . . . incompetent acts. . . . Security was not considered important," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." It was not, however, a case of "anything nefarious," he said.

Curran's attack on congressional critics drew a rebuttal from Senate intelligence committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) and a rebuke from Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), who said he thought the accusation was "inappropriate." All three appeared on ABC's "This Week."

Curran accused Shelby of failing to attend briefings on some of "our most sensitive [counterintelligence] cases" or to respond to a 1997 report with 26 specific recommendations for security improvements that was prompted by reports of spying by China at the labs. "His staff wouldn't even accept our briefings," Curran said. Instead, they would "get up and walk away," he added.

Curran also said he gave a report showing "very specific targeting of our cybernetworks within DOE by intelligence services" to the staff of Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, along with a request for $12.5 million to start dealing with the problem. "That was rejected," he said. "I did not get that money."

Curran also defended Attorney General Janet Reno against criticism for failing to get a warrant to get into the computer of espionage suspect Wen Ho Lee, who worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He said the government could not obtain warrants because officials could not satisfy the legal "probable cause" requirements.

"They're governed by statutes," Curran said of law enforcement officials. "If Congress doesn't like this, then they should change the law."

Shelby, who followed Curran on the ABC show, said that the Energy Department official was "out of bounds on some areas" and that the intelligence committee approved funds and issued a directive to tighten security at the nuclear labs, only to be "basically . . . ignored" by the Energy Department.

Shelby conceded that he has not been to all the committee's briefings but said that he had attended nearly all hearings, including some where Curran testified. "Mr. Curran knows better," said Torricelli, who has been among the sharpest Democratic critics of the administration's handling of nuclear lab security. "I thought his comments . . . were entirely inappropriate, particularly for someone in law enforcement now entrusted on a bipartisan basis to deal with this problem."

Congress is "also wanting" in its handling of the problem, Torricelli added. "I wish there were some crisis in this town . . . we could deal with without the acrimony of partisan politics."

Richardson did not say how many department officials would be fired or who they were but indicated that they would not include current lab directors. "In the past, the lab culture did resist some of the counterintelligence upgrades, but this crew that we have now generally have been enormously supportive, helpful," he said.

Appearing with Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the committee that issued a report last week on the nuclear thefts, Richardson agreed with Cox that the espionage was serious but cautioned that the extent of the damage is unknown.

But they disagreed over whether the labs are still penetrated by agents. "I believe that we have taken such strong steps that right now I don't believe there's penetration," said Richardson. Cox said: "Because we have not apprehended the people who have been able to penetrate the labs over a period of many years, we have to assume they're still there."

CAPTION: Energy Department counterintelligence director Edward J. Curran says he warned of spying.