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Espionage case little more than a political battle, critics say

by Jessica Wehrman
Albuquerque Tribune
August 5, 1999

WASHINGTON -- In the almost five months since a Taiwan-born scientist was accused of violating security at Los Alamos National Laboratory, at least nine congressional committees have studied it, Beltway pundits have blathered over it and dozens of proposals have been debated in congressional hearings.

Most recently, Sen. Pete Domenici, Albuquerque Republican, helped lead a Senate effort to restructure the Energy Department, creating a semiautonomous agency within it to handle security. That measure is being considered for attachment to the Defense Authorizations bill, which is now in conference and will likely be finished by the end of the week. The House has not passed a measure on the restructuring yet.

But critics watching Congress react to Chinese espionage say that despite the months of discussion and proposed solutions, much of the debate has become ineffectual under the weight of the political grandstanding the subject attracts.

"The whole subject has become utterly politicized and, in fact, it is little more than the latest battleground for partisan politicking," says Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst with the Federation of American Scientists.

Aftergood has watched, alarmed, as congressmen have made accusations he calls "blatantly false," including accusing former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary of leaking design secrets to a news magazine.

"As far as they're concerned, Chinese espionage is a stick with which to beat the Clinton administration," he said. "The whole tenor of the debate has been partisan."

Although the Senate in July voted to reorganize the DOE, Aftergood is skeptical it will ultimately be passed into law. Even if it is, he said, it would not prevent some security leaks from escaping the lab.

"The only way to guarantee there'll be no security leaks is to shut the labs down," he said. "That is not what we want to do."

Domenici shares concerns that the restructuring, as it stands in the Senate bill, won't become law. "I have said, and I mean it, if we get a watered-down reform bill that does not give that semiautonomous agency authority in management, I would just as soon not have anything," he said.

Domenici said he'll come back next year and fight for it again and, if that doesn't work, he'll fight for a totally independent agency rather than a semiautonomous one. "If I had to say it, I'd say there's a probability that we will get something close to the Senate bill, but there's a possibility that in trying to do that, we'd compromise too much and won't get anything," he said. "There's also a very real possibility somewhere between a possibility and a probability that the administration will threaten to veto the bill."

But he was skeptical of criticisms that the whole debate has been nothing more than a political food fight. "I think the administration came out of this pretty darned good from the extent of what could have been done, compared with what was done," he said.

Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute, a liberal think tank, says even if Congress doesn't ultimately pass legislation reforming the labs, it has fulfilled its purpose it's raised public awareness of security problems at the labs and put the issue front and center for Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.

Richardson has implemented a number of reforms on the labs, including the creation of a new office responsible for safeguards and security policy. He's also appointed a "security czar" retired Air Force General Eugene E. Habiger.

Ivan Eland of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, says congressional efforts have had a purpose larger than protecting the nation's nuclear weapons. The purpose has been to gain money for the military and to find a "meanie" for the government to take down. "There are political agendas here," he said.

The Cold War is over. Russia's no longer the nation's "bad guy." And Kosovo and Iraq have both been decisively defeated, preventing the United States from facing any major threat to rally around.

The answer to this problem? China, Eland said. "But what do you do when you have a big defense budget and nobody to fight anymore?" he said. "I think a lot of this is the demonization of China."

Even those in Congress acknowledge that much politicking has surrounded this issue.

"There are clearly people on both sides of the aisle who are using this experience for their own political purposes," says Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican who has been a leading force behind House efforts to restructure the Energy Department. "Clearly this administration sees this as a political problem to downplay or talk about how it's been going on for a long time."

Republicans, Thornberry says, use it as "the latest example of the administration going after campaign funds at the expense of national security."

At least nine committees have held hearings on the scandal, a fact which Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Silver City Democrat, expressed concern about early this spring. But Thornberry says the involvement has been an example of a major problem the DOE faces. "That's partially reflective of the way the DOE was created in the first place," Thornberry said, saying the agency is overseen by too many.

"I think it's been too political from the start," said Rep. Tom Udall, a Santa Fe Democrat whose district includes Los Alamos. "It's a shame at this point It's become political to the extent where people want to throw the baby out with the bathwater."

Domenici said though the issue started out hotly partisan, "it turned out pretty well in the end." In the Senate, a small group of committee chairs formed a coalition to unite the work. "In terms of lab morale, there could have been a little less vitriolic language on the part of the people," he said.

A bigger issue to him now is funding for the labs. In late July, the House voted to cut the Energy Department budget by $1.5 billion from $17 billion in fiscal year 1999 to $15.5 billion next year.

Domenici attributes that cut not to politics, but to tight fiscal restraints on the budget. Still, he's called that vote "irresponsible," and said he'd oppose it once the Senate and the House ironed out differences in both their bills.

As hotly charged as the issue once was, it seems to be dying down.

Part of that is because outside of Washington, many don't think it's interesting. The subject has died down in the media, Aftergood said, and as a result, fewer committees are tackling the issue. Many of the committees have completed their appropriations or authorizations bills for the DOE. It will die down further, said Rep. Heather Wilson, Albuquerque Republican, if and when the restructuring becomes law.

"I think people want their nuclear labs secure, but I think beyond that, it's very arcane to the average person," Eland said. "People are concerned about their jobs and that sort of thing. It's going to fade, this issue."

But will it fade before anything is done to prevent the problem again? Richardson has installed some reforms and members of the House, including Wilson, are convinced they'll pass some sort of reform to the DOE before long .

"The test will be what results Congress and the administration are able to achieve," said U.S. Rep. Chris Cox, a California Republican, who headed up a commission to study the problem. "Whether there's too much or too little involvement remains to be seen."

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