WASHINGTON (AP) â€” Spurred by another security breech at the Los Alamos weapons lab, the Senate swiftly confirmed the No. 2 man at the CIA to head a new nuclear weapons agency within the Energy Department.
Air Force Gen. John A. Gordon, now deputy CIA director, won unanimous confirmation Wednesday after his nomination had been held up for months. The vote was 97-0.
The disappearance of nuclear secrets from a vault at the Los Alamos weapons lab in New Mexico has prompted a criminal investigation and unleashed another torrent of criticism about security at the Energy Department, leaving the Clinton administration scrambling to contain the political fallout.
Senior Energy Department officials told a Senate hearing that the FBI has taken over what now is a criminal investigation and that some scientists â€” members of a special nuclear emergency response team â€” were to begin undergoing polygraph tests Wednesday as authorities try to find out what happened to the secrets contained in two computer hard drives.
As the vote was taken on Gordon's nomination, senators at a hearing lashed out at Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who had sent his senior advisers but did not show up for the hearing to explain the latest security flap involving his department.
Perhaps Richardson would have found time to attend ``if the secretary would spend less time trying to get the vice president elected,'' Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Intelligence Committee, declared sarcastically.
But Democrats also were sharply critical.
The incident, coming after the alleged espionage controversy involving former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee last year, represents ``a culture of indifference about security,'' said Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev.
Until the latest security breach, Gordon's nomination had languished in the Senate since last March. Democrats and the administration had sought to use the nomination to try to get changes that would make the new agency less independent within the Energy Department.
``It is critical that General Gordon take over,'' said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., in light of the latest Los Alamos security breach. He accused Richardson ``of not minding the store'' in terms of assuring that America's nuclear secrets are secure.
Gordon, who has said he would retire from the military if confirmed, ``will be taking on one of the most challenging assignments in the federal government,'' said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the Armed Services Committee's senior Democrat.