Grand Jury Convened in Lab Case

Thursday, June 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — A grand jury has been convened to look into the two-month disappearance of nuclear secrets at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory as the FBI focuses on ``a handful'' of scientists, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said Wednesday.

On Capitol Hill, Richardson said investigators have not found any evidence suggesting the two computer drives containing the information left the most secure area of the New Mexico lab, or that espionage was involved.

Some lawmakers remained unconvinced after hearing Richardson, who spoke at a public session and then back-back closed-door meetings with Senate committees.

Asked if he were concerned secrets might have been compromised, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, ``We don't know.''

``It is clear there was a lack of accounting for a great period of time,'' said Sen. John Warner, R-Va.

Government computer experts continued to examine the drives electronically to determine if information had been copied. The FBI, seeking to learn who last handled the devices, was studying fingerprints found on an external wrapping and on the drives.

They are believed to have disappeared ``at the tail end of March'' from a vault in the top-secret ``X Division'' at Los Alamos. The drives were found last Friday behind a copying machine in an area that had been thoroughly searched at least twice, according to officials.

``The investigation ... has focused on a handful of X-Division employees who have offered conflicting statements to investigators,'' said Richardson.

A grand jury has been convened in New Mexico ``to examine issues related to the case,'' he said.

A grand jury is often empaneled when people under investigation are giving conflicting or possibly deceptive statements, a Justice Department official explained, requesting anonymity. The purpose is to provide a forum before which they can be questioned under oath and set up a situation where they face possible prosecution if they lie.

Even if the drives have not been compromised, those involved in thee disappearance and mysterious reappearance could face felony charges for mishandling nuclear secrets. Officials said DOE regulations requiring any security breach to be reported within eight hours were violated.

A former Los Alamos nuclear scientist, Wen Ho Lee, is in jail awaiting trial and could face a maximum of life in prison for security violations. He was arrested in December and accused of illegally copying top-secret nuclear weapons files while also working in the X Division. The alleged copies of the files have not been found.

The latest security breach has unleashed particularly angry rhetoric on Capitol Hill because the lapse follows repeated assurances by Richardson that security was a top priority and that America's nuclear secrets were safe.

``You've lost all credibility,'' Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Intelligence Committee, told Richardson.

``I believe you are part of the problem. Look in the mirror,'' lectured Shelby, who has said Richardson should resign.

At times combative and at other times subdued, Richardson acknowledged the seriousness of the disappearance of the hard drives — even if there was no espionage — and listed the steps he has taken over the past year to tighten lab security.

``In two years I've done more on security than has been done in the last 20 years,'' he told the senators.

But they were in no mood for such explanations.

Lawmakers instead accused Richardson of trying for months to sidestep a requirement from Congress last year that would put nuclear weapons programs under a largely autonomous agency within his department. They said this would streamline accountability.

Richardson contended the new agency was being given too much independence; he staffed it with his own senior advisers. On Wednesday — under intense attack — he said he was ready to accept the agency as created.

Meantime, Warner said he would soon introduce legislation to look at whether an independent agency or the Defense Department should take over the nuclear weapons programs, including the research labs.

Sen. Joe Lieberman predicted that if security does not improve and the administration does not give wide berth to the new nuclear weapons agency, there will be strong bipartisan support for putting the Pentagon in charge.

``This really is the last chance,'' Lieberman, D-Conn., told Richardson.