After months of leaks and partisan rhetoric about Chinese espionage at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board has finally spoken, trying to inject some semblance of balance into the superheated debate.

"Opinions expressed in the media and elsewhere have ranged from one extreme to the other," the little known but heavy-hitting panel said in its recent report on Department of Energy weapons labs, "Science at Its Best, Security at Its Worst."

"On one end of the spectrum is the view that the Chinese have acquired very little classified information and can do little with it. On the other end is the view that the Chinese have nearly duplicated the W-88 warhead. After reviewing the available intelligence and interviewing the major participants in many of these studies, we conclude that none of these extreme views holds water," the panel concluded.

The 14-member panel, PFIAB, chaired by former senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), was created 43 years ago by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to advise the president on the quality--and legality--of foreign intelligence activities.

In its latest report, the PFIAB cut to the quick of the spy case at Los Alamos, asking why the FBI and the DOE's chief spy hunter, Notra Trulock, focused virtually all their energy on one nuclear physicist at the lab, Wen Ho Lee, without hard evidence that classified warhead data obtained by the Chinese came from Lee or anyone else at the fabled home of the atom bomb. "Despite the disclosure of information concerning seven warheads, despite the potential that the source or sources of these disclosures were other than the bomb designers at the national weapons labs, and despite the potential that the disclosures occurred as early as 1982, only one investigation was initiated," the PFIAB said.

The report was written by Rudman and three of the other PFIAB members: Ann Z. Caracristi, former deputy director of the National Security Agency; Stephen Friedman, chairman of the board of Columbia University; and Sidney D. Drell, deputy director of Stanford University's Linear Accelerator Center.

STAND-DOWN COSTS: Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's June 21-22 security stand-down at Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories cost American taxpayers $15 million in lost labor, according to calculations by Chris Mechels, a retired Los Alamos computer security official who now serves as vice president of Citizens for Los Alamos National Laboratory Employee Rights.

Mechels passed on the following account he received via e-mail from a staff member at Livermore:

Day 1: "At 08:00, all were given notices at the gates as we came in. Mandatory 30 minute presentation at 08:30 from [lab director] Bruce Tarter. To be followed at 09:00 by a 3 hour mandatory counterintelligence viewing. Rest of the Day?????? Just notices of rebroadcasts."

Day 2: "At 08:00 this morning, I was given a one page counterintelligence memo to read. Mandatory reading . . . The rest of the day was a total loss. I had to cancel a meeting scheduled for today because of the stand down, but nothing was scheduled for the second day!!!!"

TO THE WOODSHED: The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence takes the National Security Agency to the woodshed in its report on the fiscal 2000 Intelligence Authorization Act, bluntly declaring: "The committee believes that NSA is in serious trouble."

While committing huge amounts of money to "recapitalize" the NSA's worldwide system for intercepting communications in the face of increased technological challenges, the committee noted that "money and priority alone will not revive NSA, nor the overall [signals intelligence] system."

"The committee believes that NSA management has not yet stepped up to the line," the panel said.

The NSA released a statement yesterday that it "respects the views of Congress and we look forward to working with the members and their staffs to address specific concerns. [NSA Director Michael V. Hayden] is dedicated to bringing about whatever changes are necessary so that the Agency workforce can meet the challenges of the 21st Century with the same success it has met challenges in the past."

Beyond heavy new investment in signals intelligence, the committee identified four other spending priorities, including "stronger and more extensive clandestine [human intelligence] capability" and "new tools in the covert action 'toolbox.' "

What kind of tools might those be?

Vernon Loeb's e-mail address is loebv@washpost.com