The former director of counterintelligence at Los Alamos National Laboratory continues to speak out on the government's Chinese espionage investigation, saying the Department of Energy's national laboratories found out far more about China's nuclear weapons than they ever lost to foreign spies and deserve a medal, not scorn.

"The view that the U.S. weapons labs have leaked nuclear secrets to China could not be further from the truth," Robert S. Vrooman said in a recent speech at Los Alamos to a group of electrical engineers. "If someone told me that 85 percent of everything we know about China's nuclear weapons program came through the DOE weapons laboratories, I would not be surprised."

Vrooman retired as counterintelligence chief at Los Alamos in March. He was stripped of a consultant's contract in September at the recommendation of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson for failing to remove physicist Wen Ho Lee from his job inside Los Alamos's top-secret X Division in 1997 after Lee came under suspicion for espionage.

Vrooman fired his first public salvo in August, shortly after Richardson recommended disciplinary action against him. At the time, Vrooman said federal investigators targeted Lee as an espionage suspect largely because he was a Chinese American and did not have a "shred of evidence" against him as a spy. Lee is in jail, charged with mishandling classified information.

In his most recent remarks, Vrooman disclosed that the weapons labs began collecting China's nuclear secrets in 1979 after a retired U.S. weapons scientist traveled to China and "found the Chinese willing to talk about what they were doing."

"At this time the U.S. intelligence community knew very little about the Chinese nuclear weapons program," Vrooman said. "This visit led to 10 years of 'controlled,' let me emphasize the word 'controlled,' contacts between Chinese and U.S. nuclear weapons specialists.

"By the early 1990s the U.S. intelligence community knew the names of the leading Chinese weapons specialists, knew information on the weapons systems and understood Chinese nuclear doctrine. China also accepted the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and stopped testing," Vrooman said. "This is a much different picture than some in Congress and the intelligence community would like you to believe."

CRITIQUING A CRITIQUE: A day after Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation issued a harsh, 95-page critique last week of a House select committee's May 1999 report on Chinese espionage, a top staffer on the committee fired back with his own list of 50 factual errors in the Stanford report.

Nicholas Rostow, who worked for the House committee chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calf.) and now is staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, concedes in a preface to the list that the Cox committee made "mistakes and omissions . . . that deserve examination."

But the four essays that make up the Stanford critique, he writes, "fail to reveal any substantial errors, and, in fact, are replete with their own errors and mistakes."

The Stanford critique can be found online at http://www.stanford.edu/group/CISAC/. Rostow's rebuttal is soon to be posted at http://www.house.gov/cox/.

FINDING ABSURDITY: Less than a month after a federal judge ruled that the CIA didn't have to give him an aggregate total for intelligence community spending in fiscal 1999, Steven Aftergood suffered another setback last week in his quest for greater government disclosure when a government panel refused his request for total intelligence spending 11 years earlier.

Aftergood, who heads the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy, called the latest denial "just ineffably absurd."

While pursuing the 1999 spending total in court through the Freedom of Information Act, last year Aftergood requested the 1988 total through another process for obtaining secret government documents called mandatory declassification review.

When the CIA refused to release the figure, Aftergood appealed to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel.

"I figured, let's go back 10 years . . . and let's see how far budget secrecy goes," Aftergood said.

Now he knows: on Friday, the ISCAP informed him that it was upholding the agency's denial, agreeing that the total spent on intelligence in fiscal 1988 is still too sensitive to release.

"It has to get more absurd in order to get less absurd," Aftergood said. "And we're moving in that direction."