The Department of Energy has taken initial steps to tighten security in the wake of alleged Chinese spying, but it faces substantial stumbling blocks that almost certainly will delay counterespionage measures, according to an internal report made available to The Washington Post.
The sobering report by DOE Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman comes as Congress is pushing for a rapid reorganization of the Energy Department to shore up security. The Senate may vote as early as today on a plan to create a semiautonomous agency inside the DOE to run the nation's huge complex of nuclear weapons laboratories, assembly plants and storage facilities.
One of the major counterintelligence efforts announced this year by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is a plan to require polygraph tests for approximately 5,000 employees in jobs with access to classified information. The report says, however, that some administrators at the nation's three main nuclear weapons laboratories believe that "it will be necessary to change current contract language" before the department can require the so-called lie detector tests at the national labs, which are operated under contract with the University of California and Lockheed Martin Corp.
Other Energy Department officials say that the polygraph tests can be imposed under the current contracts. But even those officials expect a delay of several months, until new departmental regulations on the examinations are approved.
"Most of those people have already agreed to polygraphs and are just waiting for the regulation," one senior Energy official said yesterday. He added: "We want to do it right and not have to change it a couple months from now."
While the inspector general's report confirms Richardson's claim that 85 percent of the major counterintelligence reforms proposed last year are already being carried out, it also says that many lower-priority programs have yet to begin.
For instance, the report says, the FBI has not yet taken over the job of conducting background investigations of laboratory personnel who require security clearances. Energy Department officials consider the current investigations, performed by the Office of Personnel Management, to be unsatisfactory. The FBI has said that it does not have enough agents to take on the entire backlog of some 10,000 clearance updates, but discussions are underway to have the FBI do the "most sensitive" inquiries, according to one DOE official.
The report also calls for speeding up the establishment of a new system to keep track of foreign visitors to the labs and foreign scientists working in the labs on assignment.
Richardson's new policy also calls for lab employees to report to counterintelligence officials all instances "of close and continuing contact, including e-mail, with foreign visitors and assignees from sensitive countries."
The inspector general's report says that no uniform system to keep track of such contacts now exists and that a centralized system is being developed. It also noted that a pilot program to monitor electronic mail sent by lab personnel to sensitive countries has yet to be put in place, although $2 million has been allocated to start such a program in five labs.
One major reform that has been implemented, according to the report, is the transfer of control over the department's entire counterintelligence budget to Edward J. Curran, the DOE's new director of counterintelligence.
That approach has yet to be approved by Congress and appears contrary to a bipartisan proposal to establish the nuclear weapons complex as a semiautonomous agency inside the Energy Department, which may be voted on in the Senate today.