In a surprise move, President Clinton has ordered Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to take over the duties of director of the newly authorized National Nuclear Security Administration, thereby blocking a Republican-drafted and congressionally approved plan to reorganize the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons complex.

The plan was the subject of extensive negotiations and designed to tighten counterintelligence and security at the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories in response to allegations of Chinese espionage. An original plan for a semi-autonomous agency was approved by the Clinton administration and passed the Senate. But as modified in a House-Senate conference to give more autonomy to the new agency, the plan drew opposition from Richardson.

In signing the fiscal 2000 defense authorization bill Tuesday that contained the reorganization plan, Clinton announced in a statement that he would withhold appointing a new undersecretary for nuclear security within the Energy Department, as contemplated by legislative language, until Congress changes what he termed the plan's "deficiencies."

Drafters of the Republican plan had demanded that the new agency be kept separate and not supervised by other Energy officials, particularly those involved with security, counterintelligence, health and safety regulations.

Defying that plan, Clinton told Richardson to assign existing Energy staff officers to similar offices within the new weapons agency "to the extent permissible by law." Instead of having two counterintelligence bosses, as envisioned by the congressional plan, Clinton's order had the effect of retaining much of the reorganization Richardson already had introduced. The bottom line is there will be just one head of counterintelligence instead of two.

Although it was known that Richardson and the White House were unhappy with the reorganization plan that emerged from a House-Senate conference, Republicans in Congress felt that Clinton would be forced to put it into effect when he signed the bill Tuesday instead of vetoing it.

Clinton's order to Richardson came as a shock to the measure's chief authors. At a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting yesterday that Richardson attended, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who took a leading role in the effort, called the president's action "an absolute frontal attack." He criticized Richardson personally, accusing him of "pious words" in saying he would follow the law. Domenici added: "I don't want any comments from you. . . . We've been at it too long and I'm fed up."

"In my 21 years on this committee, I have rarely been stunned by [such] an event," added Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Richardson had told the panel, "The president has instructed me to follow the law. And I will do that." He said he hoped that Congress would remedy the "lack of clarity and some constitutional problems" by using the fiscal 2000 intelligence authorization bill, which is still before Congress.

Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry (R-Tex.), who chairs a newly formed House subcommittee with responsibility to oversee the weapons program, said the president's action would "backfire" if it "is meant to leverage Congress to force changes" in the reorganization plan. "We want to make sure the law is followed in letter and intent," Thornberry said.