Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the select committee that reported last month on alleged Chinese nuclear espionage, said yesterday he supports a proposal to transfer control over nuclear weapons production and research from the Department of Energy to an independent agency much like the old Atomic Energy Commission.
Cox added his voice to a growing chorus of Energy Department critics who are calling for creation of an independent nuclear agency, despite opposition from Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who yesterday named a new "security czar" to reform the department from within.
The Cox committee's bipartisan report on Chinese espionage did not include specific recommendations for reform. But Cox said in an interview in his Capitol office that he is generally in agreement with the proposals made Monday by a panel of presidential advisers headed by former senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
The Rudman panel recommended giving authority over nuclear functions to an autonomous entity within the Energy Department or establishing an independent agency. The panel said it was "extremely skeptical that any reform effort, no matter how well-intentioned, well-designed, and effectively applied, will gain more than a toehold at [the Energy Department] given its labyrinthine management structure."
A similar proposal for a new Nuclear Security Administration, either within the Energy Department or outside it, is under consideration on Capitol Hill. President Clinton has said he will seriously study the Rudman panel's suggestion.
Richardson, showing he means to continue his own security reforms, yesterday named retired Air Force Gen. Eugene E. Habiger as the department's director of security and emergency operations, handing him an $800 million budget and responsibility for safeguarding the nation's nuclear weapons and nuclear secrets.
Habiger, who retired last year after serving as chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, said he would act as both a "patriot" and a "dictator" in his new role. He added that he came out of retirement to help fix a very serious problem that he expects to attack with absolute authority.
"General Habiger is security czar, and he will report directly to me," Richardson said.
The Rudman panel already has criticized Richardson's reform plan, saying in its report that the new security chief "will still have to cross borders into other people's fiefdoms, causing certain turmoil and infighting."
Richardson also said yesterday that he has asked Congress for $100 million to make security improvements, and that he is considering appointment of an undersecretary for national security affairs. He also announced a two-day "security immersion program" for all employees at the nation's three primary weapons laboratories -- Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia -- to review "their personal responsibilities to enforce and respect effective counterintelligence, security and cybersecurity procedures."
Cox said that during his panel's deliberations, members learned the history of "keeping nuclear weapons under civilian control and the problems of having generals exclusively in control of nuclear weapons." They also learned "the advantages of combining the civil and military nuclear missions," which he said was why the original Atomic Energy Commission was born.
"If we had been forced to make a recommendation," Cox said, "that probably would have been our recommendation, to recreate the AEC." Since there was little time, he said, the panel recommended only that a new structure for the Energy Department be studied.
And, in a rare criticism of Congress's own procedures, Cox questioned the oversight of nuclear weapons programs by congressional subcommittees "that do not have national security as their chief mission."
"It is a misfit over at" the Department of Energy, Cox said, referring to nuclear weapons being lodged in a department mainly concerned with civilian energy matters, "and it's a misfit in the way [DOE] plugs in to Capitol Hill."