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The Washington Post
July 3, 2001

Back Channels: DOE Security

By Vernon Loeb

In yet another sign that the Clinton administration is really over, the House Appropriations Committee has recommended a $19.3 million cut in funding for security and emergency operations at the Department of Energy's weapons laboratories, concluding that current security practices may be excessive.

"The Department's safeguards and security programs seem to careen from one incident to another -- alleged loss of nuclear weapons secrets, misplaced computer hard drives with classified information, and alleged discriminatory actions towards visitors," the committee said in a report on a fiscal 2002 appropriations bill.

The committee urged the Bush administration "to review the underlying basis for each of the Department's security practices to determine if current procedures result in excessive costs without commensurate protection for employees, facilities, and national security programs."

The panel also chided the DOE for using citizenship "as a security screening tool," noting that Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) was detained on his way into DOE headquarters by security guards and twice asked whether he was an American, even after the two-term House member of Chinese descent showed his congressional identification.

But it wasn't all that long ago that Congress was lambasting the Clinton administration for lax security and counterintelligence at the weapons labs, citing an espionage investigation at Los Alamos National Laboratory involving physicist Wen Ho Lee as proof that China had stolen U.S. nuclear weapons secrets.

Congress also closed the weapons laboratories to foreign visitors for a time, the ultimate use of citizenship as a screening tool.

"Congress is singing a remarkably new tune about security at the Department of Energy," Steven Aftergood writes in his regular e-mail publication, "Secrecy News." He directs the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.

"The modest reference to an 'alleged' loss of nuclear weapons secrets is a significant retreat from the past insistence by the congressional Cox Committee and others that China simply 'stole' the nation's 'most sophisticated nuclear weapons technology,' " Aftergood writes.

He adds that a "furor" in Congress over suspected espionage at Los Alamos led to an "indiscriminate" security buildup at the labs that included proposals to require thousands of scientists to submit to polygraph testing. "But now Congress implicitly acknowledges that the security frenzy it inspired has exceeded reasonable boundaries," Aftergood concludes.

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post

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