Even the Energy Department's new security czar can slip up when talking about classified nuclear weapons.

A group of scientists at the Sandia National Laboratories, facing polygraphs as part of tighter security at the nuclear weapons labs, are calling attention to what they see as an embarrassing slip by retired Air Force Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, named by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to improve lab security.

On July 21, Habiger held a get-acquainted session with 200 Sandia employees at the Albuquerque facility. In the course of discussing his former role as chief of Stratcom, Habiger made references to a nuclear bomb, now retired, that had been carried by B-52 bombers. He noted the yield, or explosive power, of the bomb, information that is still classified.

A Sandia employee noted in an anonymous e-mail that under new security rules, the Sandia lab director must now report this security violation to Habiger as security czar.

Asked about the incident, Habiger said he was unaware the material is still classified and that he was "not concerned" with security slips of that nature. Yields of active and retired U.S. nuclear warheads and bombs were among the data that a House panel said were stolen by Chinese spies, breaches that led to the labs' tightened security.

SPY SATELLITES: Ever since last summer's cruise missile strikes against targets associated with terrorist financier Osama bin Laden, Clinton administration policymakers have shown a fondness for releasing imagery from classified spy satellites to depict the success of U.S. military operations.

The practice reached a crescendo during NATO's bombardment of Yugoslavia, when NATO, Pentagon and State Department officials relied on spy photos to depict burning villages and mass graves with devastating effect, leaving little doubt about the value of the billion-dollar birds.

"If you're going to spend $6 billion a year on the National Reconnaissance Office, you'd be stupid not to do this, given . . . how effective this imagery is," John Pike, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said in an interview. "The public's understanding of the Kosovo air war would have been vastly diminished without the release of this imagery."

Imagery that once was highly classified has been downgraded to "secret" since it's now commonly used in bomb targeting. It's no longer much of a stretch to declassify the photos outright, Pike said.

NRO Director Keith Hall recently noted with some concern that so much public use of imagery has the effect of educating "the rest of the world . . . about your capabilities."

"We already see some evidence of people deriving lessons from the gulf war and applying it to make our job tougher," Hall said.

There are limits, of course, to the new openness: All of the images released have been degraded to a resolution of about one meter, meaning objects at least one meter in size can be distinguished. The full capability of the NRO's most advanced KH-11 satellites is still being kept from public view.

SECRETS AUTHORITY: The CIA has challenged the jurisdiction of an interagency panel that arbitrates disputes over declassification, arguing that the director of central intelligence alone has the statutory obligation to protect intelligence sources during the declassification process.

The agency voiced its objection earlier this year as the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) was deciding whether to release three CIA documents requested by a researcher under the government's process of mandatory declassification review. The panel had decided to declassify 15 other CIA documents sought by the researcher and denied by the agency.

There are two ways to seek the declassification of government documents: One is through the Freedom of Information Act, with appeals to the courts; the other is through mandatory declassification review, with appeals to the ISCAP. The panel was created to oversee the declassification process and arbitrate disputes under an executive order President Clinton issued in 1995 to limit future classification and speed declassification.

"What people have discovered, to their surprise, is that the ISCAP, an executive branch entity, has been declassifying more documents than . . . the courts," said Steven Garfinkel, director of the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office and ISCAP executive secretary.

Garfinkel said he doesn't know what "precedential effect" the CIA's request for a legal opinion from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel may have on future cases. But clearly, Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet isn't comfortable ceding his declassification authority to anyone else in the government.