Attempting to bring an end to the Chinese espionage scandal that has plagued his department for months, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson yesterday recommended disciplinary action against two former counterintelligence officials and the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Richardson's announcement came as he released the findings of a sharply critical report by the Department of Energy's own inspector general and issued a statement acknowledging that both "political and career management" failed to pay enough attention to security. As a result of "systemic" management lapses, the inspector general concluded, the government's chief espionage suspect, former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, was able to keep his security clearance and sensitive work assignment for at least 18 months longer than necessary.
"There was a total breakdown in the system and there's plenty of blame to go around," Richardson said, indicating that he believes his department has completed its internal probe and responded adequately to the espionage allegations.
Earlier this year, as leading Republicans pilloried the Clinton administration for allegedly dragging its feet in response to Chinese spying, Richardson beefed up security and counterintelligence at the nation's weapons labs, appointed a new "security czar" and announced plans to require polygraph tests for an estimated 5,000 nuclear scientists and administrators.
Most recently, Richardson reluctantly agreed to a Senate plan to create a semiautonomous nuclear agency within his department, which would be the first major reorganization of the nation's nuclear weapons complex in more than 20 years. But it remains to be seen whether those reforms and the disciplinary action Richardson recommended yesterday will be enough to mollify House Republicans, whose plan to create a National Nuclear Security Administration, accepted earlier this month by a House-Senate conference committee, would greatly reduce Richardson's authority over nuclear weapons facilities.
Richardson declined to name the three officials he recommended for disciplinary action and said it would be up to Los Alamos Director John C. Browne to determine the proper punishment, which could range from letters of reprimand to dismissal.
But officials familiar with Richardson's recommendation identified the three as Sig Hecker, who served as Los Alamos's director from January 1986 to October 1997 and still works as a senior scientist at the facility; Robert S. Vrooman, the lab's former counterintelligence chief, who is now retired and serves as a part-time consultant to a lab subcontractor; and Terry Craig, a former counterintelligence team leader now working in another section of the lab.
None of the three could be reached for comment yesterday. They did not return telephone messages left by The Washington Post.
Senior Energy Department officials also said that former Energy Secretary Federico Pena and two former deputy secretaries, Elizabeth A. Moler and Victor H. Reis, might have been subject to disciplinary action for failing to adequately pursue espionage allegations, if they were still employed by the department.
However, the Energy Department's inspector general, Gregory Friedman, determined that there was insufficient evidence to substantiate a charge by Notra Trulock, the DOE counterintelligence official who targeted Lee as a suspect, that Moler tried to prevent Trulock from testifying to Congress.
Richardson recommended disciplinary action against Hecker, Los Alamos's former director, for allegedly failing to follow through on a request by senior DOE officials to limit Lee's access to classified nuclear weapons information, officials said.
They said Richardson determined that Vrooman, the lab's former counterintelligence chief, allowed Lee to continue to work in Los Alamos's top secret X Division, where nuclear weapons are designed, even after FBI Director Louis J. Freeh informed DOE officials that there was no longer any reason to keep Lee in that job for surveillance purposes.
Richardson recommended disciplinary action against Craig, the counterintelligence team leader, for failing to discover and inform the FBI in 1996 that Lee had signed a waiver authorizing Los Alamos officials to search his computer, the officials said.
As a result, the FBI did not discover that Lee had transferred nuclear weapons data from Los Alamos's secure, classified computer network to an unclassified desktop computer in his office for another 2 1/2 years, until it finally searched Lee's computer in May.
Lee granted permission for that search after his firing by Richardson in March for alleged violations of regulations on the handling of classified information. He has denied ever passing secrets to China.
The Justice Department is still trying to determine whether to charge Lee with a crime for transferring the classified data to the unclassified computer. But senior U.S. officials previously have said there is not enough evidence to support espionage charges against him.