A special panel of President Clinton's intelligence advisers yesterday recommended making the Energy Department's nuclear weapons functions semi-autonomous inside the department or splitting them off into an independent agency reporting directly to the White House.

A similar recommendation has been under study for weeks on Capitol Hill as an outgrowth of allegations of Chinese espionage at the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories, which are part of the Energy Department. As late as last week, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told Congress he would oppose setting up what he called "a fiefdom within a fiefdom." Faced with a recommendation from Clinton's own advisers, Richardson said yesterday: "I still do not believe that creating a separate agency will do the trick, but nonetheless we will carefully study the proposal."

Clinton said in a statement that he too will "carefully review" the new recommendation and reaffirmed that he remains "committed to taking the necessary steps to safeguard our nation's secrets."

Former senator Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and head of the four-person investigative panel, told Clinton in a 45-minute briefing that layers of bureaucracy at the Energy Department for 20 years have blurred accountability and led to lax security within the nuclear weapons complex, according to a senior White House official.

Rudman, the White House official said, told Clinton that a presidential decision directive signed in 1998 was "the first really serious effort" to tighten security at the department, but that in the wake of espionage charges, it was "late in coming." Rudman surprised the president by saying that "people [at the Energy Department] were still trying to keep it from being implemented," the official said.

"The Department of Energy is a dysfunctional bureaucracy that has proven it is incapable of reforming itself," the panel's report concluded.

As a result, Rudman's panel said shaving the nuclear weapons program out of the department altogether should be considered. Or, it suggested, "The weapons research and stockpile management functions should be placed wholly within a new semi-autonomous agency within [the department] that has a clear mission, streamlined bureaucracy and drastically simplified lines of authority and accountability."

The report praised Energy Department whistleblower Notra Trulock and the House select committee chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), which brought forward the espionage allegations, for what the panel called "invaluable" work focusing public and political attention on the deparment's security problems. But it also sharply criticized Trulock and Cox for drawing worst-case conclusions from indications of what may have occurred at the nuclear laboratories.

"Damaging new information," the report said, was undermined by "innuendo; possible damage has been minted as probable disaster; workaday delay and bureaucratic confusion have been cast as diabolical conspiracies."

"Enough is enough," the report concluded.

The panel also criticized the Energy Department and the FBI for narrowing the investigation of possible stealing of data on seven U.S. nuclear warheads, citing a classified Chinese report obtained by CIA in 1995 that contained "highly sensitive . . . descriptions, in varying degrees of specificity, of technical characteristics" on the warheads.

The one investigation run by the FBI "focused on only one warhead, the W-88, only one category of potential sources--bomb designers at the national labs--and on only a four-year window of opportunity." Instead, the panel called for a more vigorous and full inquiry "regardless of the conclusions that may result."

The panel noted the wide range of analysis on Capitol Hill and elsewhere on what benefit the Chinese nuclear program may have gained from information allegedly stolen from the United States. "On one end of the spectrum is the view that the Chinese have acquired very little classified information and can do little with it," the report noted. "On the other end is the view that the Chinese have nearly duplicated the W-88 warhead," it said in a reference to the Cox committee's view.

"None of these extreme views holds water," the panel concluded, supporting the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies in April 1999 that concluded China's technical advances could have come not just from espionage but from a wide range of other unclassified sources and "the relative contribution of each cannot be determined."

But whether or not current Chinese nuclear development benefited from espionage, the panel found the Energy Department's "organizational disarray, managerial neglect, and a culture of arrogance . . . conspired to create an espionage scandal waiting to happen."

Among the new areas it cited was the inadequate screening of new personnel and the reinvestigation of longtime employees. "Problems with personnel security clearances, while mitigated in some aspects, have persisted to an alarming degree," the panel said.

Other members of Rudman's panel, who also are members of the president's foreign intelligence board, were Ann Z. Caracristi, former deputy director of the National Security Agency, the nation's electronic intelligence arm; Sindey D. Drell, a renowned physicist, consultant to government and congressional committees and chairman of a University of California panel that helps manage the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories; and Stephen Friedman, former chairman of Goldman, Sachs & Co., the New York investment banking firm.

CAPTION: Former senator Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) warned of layers of bureaucracy.