It may be weeks or even months before the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory takes disciplinary action against three employees for their alleged mishandling of a suspected Chinese spy, officials said yesterday.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson recommended two weeks ago that the laboratory impose some form of discipline, which could range from mandatory counseling to dismissal, against key employees involved in the case of Wen Ho Lee.
But because the lab is managed by the University of California, officials said, personnel actions must follow the university's procedures, which include a fact-finding process, rights of appeal and possible arbitration.
Los Alamos Lab Director John C. Browne said that he and University of California President Richard Atkinson decided last week to establish a panel of three "highly respected and independent" national security experts "to advise us on what actions would be appropriate."
Browne said two people already have agreed to serve on the panel, but he declined to give their names until all three members are set. He added that the panel is expected to take several weeks to review a recent report from the Energy Department's inspector general about the handling of allegations against Lee, a Taiwan-born scientist who was fired from his job at Los Alamos for violating security regulations but has not been charged with any crime.
Some members of Congress already have criticized the university for alleged security lapses, and congressional aides said Richardson may come under pressure to cut off the university's contract to run Los Alamos if the disciplinary process is protracted or the employees receive a mere slap on the wrist.
The university has operated the laboratory under a noncompetitive contract in effect since World War II, when the first atomic bombs were developed at Los Alamos under the top-secret Manhattan Project.
In the wake of the espionage scandal, Congress has been pushing for a reorganization of the Energy Department and tighter security at the labs. Richardson already has named a former general as the department's "security czar," and he has ordered periodic polygraph tests for an estimated 5,000 scientists and administrators at Los Alamos and other national weapons labs.
Richardson has not named the three officials who may face disciplinary action. But other sources have identified them as Siegfried S. Hecker, who preceded Browne as director of Los Alamos; Robert S. Vrooman, who was in charge of counterintelligence at the lab; and Terry Craig, a former counterintelligence team leader.
Richardson recommended that they be punished on the basis of the inspector general's report, which concluded that there was "a total breakdown in the system" and that "political and career management failed to give necessary attention to counterintelligence and security" at Los Alamos.
Hecker, who ran the lab for 12 years, was singled out by Richardson for failing to develop a plan to limit Lee's access to classified material, even after being asked to do so by top Energy Department officials. He also was criticized for not informing the department's headquarters in Washington that no action had been taken.
Hecker has remained as a full-time member of the Los Alamos staff, working in the materials science and technology division. He has declined to comment.
Vrooman resigned his position before Richardson's recommendations but remains an "affiliate" of the lab, working about one-quarter time as a consultant. Richardson urged Browne to "reevaluate the lab's relationship" with Vrooman because he is no longer subject to other forms of discipline.
Vrooman said yesterday, "Browne is treating me very fairly. He's putting together a system to look at the facts" before taking action.
Craig, who now works in the lab's business development office dealing with technology transfers, was cited by Richardson for failing to notify the FBI that Lee had waived his privacy rights, thereby permitting the government to search his office computer.
"I don't have any reason to think that the process the lab comes up with will be anything but fair," said Craig. "I think it's going to look at the facts, rather than all the rhetoric."