In his last days in office, former energy secretary Bill Richardson temporarily suspended a series of measures that had been taken over the past two years to tighten security at the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories.
Richardson discontinued some of the measures, which included giving polygraph or "lie detector" tests to more than 10,000 employees, pending a high-level review to determine whether they have done more harm than good.
He had instituted many of the security measures under pressure from Congress after allegations of Chinese espionage at the lab. But laboratory managers and scientists have complained in recent months that the crackdown was making it difficult for them to do their jobs and for the labs to recruit first-rate researchers.
"I'm not just concerned with security," Richardson said in a telephone interview. "I was concerned with the morale of the labs."
In addition to widespread polygraphing of Energy Department employees, the measures included tighter computer security, limited access to classified materials and controls over foreign visitors.
Richardson ordered that the new policies be suspended until administrators from Washington, regional Energy Department officials and lab managers can gather for a "review conference" to discuss security, according to a Jan. 18 memo from the former secretary to John A. Gordon, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Under legislation passed by Congress last year, Gordon, a retired general who also serves as an undersecretary of energy, has primary responsibility for running the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories.
No date has been set for the conference, which was proposed last month by a commission on science and security set up by Richardson. The commission chairman, former deputy secretary of defense John J. Hamre, said this week there is "dissonance within the system" because "security people are not talking to scientists" and implementation of the rules has varied from one lab to the other.
Richardson also ordered Gordon to set up a task force to examine physical security around nuclear materials stored at the labs. In recent exercises designed to test those barriers, U.S. troops playing the role of infiltrators quickly overcame guards who were supposed to protect nuclear materials.
Richardson's successor as energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, has not yet decided whether to reimpose the suspended security measures, according to an Energy Department spokesman.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding of the labs, expressed dismay over the suspension, saying he did not understand why Richardson wanted a last-minute review of "policies that were mostly his."
Domenici also voiced strong opposition to cuts sought by the White House Office of Management and Budget in the Energy Department's $5 billion "stockpile stewardship" program, which funds efforts at the national labs to ensure the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons. Two of the labs, Los Alamos and Sandia, are in New Mexico.
Contending that the stockpile program "can't get by with less," Domenici predicted that OMB's reported request for a $180 million cut "won't stand." OMB's new director, Mitchell Daniels, "just did not have enough time to understand the problems in the program," he said.