Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, left, chief of security, and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson testified recently on Capitol Hill of the need for increased funding to protect the laboratories and safeguard computers from encryption.

Plans to protect the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories from foreign espionage have fallen behind schedule because Congress failed to appropriate enough money for security measures, the Energy Department's new "security czar" said yesterday.

Even if Congress now approves a request for emergency supplemental funding, plans to have a new security program fully in place by next September are off-track. "I'm not going to be able to do it," said retired Air Force Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, who heads the department's Office of Security and Emergency Operations.

While he had expected to be hiring new personnel and buying new computer hardware by now, Habiger said, emergency money will not be available until April or May, meaning at least a six- or seven-month delay and even longer if Congress declines to provide the extra funds.

In a major report last spring, a congressional panel headed by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) alleged that the People's Republic of China had stolen an array of nuclear secrets from the laboratories, and the legislators blamed the Energy Department, which oversees the labs, for failing to maintain adequate safeguards.

But, Habiger complained, when it came time to pay for beefed up protection, Congress cut his funding request from $65 million to $10 million in the federal budget signed into law Monday. Republicans dispute his contention, arguing that the Clinton administration failed to produce a coherent plan for security improvements.

Habiger, a former chief of the Strategic Air Command, said his office is carrying out a dozen policy initiatives that cost little or nothing, such as new requirements for safeguarding personal passwords on laboratory computers. As a result, he said, "we have turned the corner" and begun to remedy some of the security flaws uncovered during investigations of alleged Chinese espionage.

Without the necessary funds, however, the department cannot fully train computer system administrators on security measures, tighten the screening of foreign visitors to the labs, beef up protection for nuclear materials or buy encryption equipment to protect computers from electronic intrusions, Habiger said in recent congressional testimony.

The Cox committee reported last May that "stolen U.S. nuclear secrets give [China] design information on thermonuclear weapons on par with our own." It also alleged that espionage at the three national laboratories that design and develop nuclear weapons had allowed China to test modern nuclear weapons much sooner than it would have otherwise.

Speaking to Pentagon reporters yesterday, Habiger acknowledged serious vulnerabilities in the nuclear laboratories, saying that since the end of the Cold War, a dangerously "relaxed" attitude had developed. And he said the Cox report and other investigations helped point out these security problems. But he played down the allegations of Chinese spying.

"The jury is still out" on whether China acquired any information that will allow it to significantly improve its nuclear weapons program, he said. Even after reviewing all the relevant intelligence reports, Habiger said, he has not seen conclusive evidence that China acquired important information through espionage at the laboratories.

Cox said in an interview yesterday that Habiger has failed to provide Congress with a detailed spending plan since he took over the newly created security office in June. "There is no explanation of what they want to do," Cox said. He also noted that the Clinton administration did not seek money for major improvements in nuclear security until last spring, after the political furor over alleged Chinese spying.

To remedy his short-term budget woes, Habiger said, he will ask Congress to approve the reallocation of $3 million to $5 million of Energy Department funds. For the longer term, he said, he will seek $35 million in an emergency supplemental appropriation that Congress is expected to consider early next year.