Richardson Rejects Calls To Resign

Sunday, June 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Rejecting GOP calls he resign over security lapses, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said Sunday there is no evidence two computer drives with nuclear secrets ever left the Los Alamos lab or that espionage was involved in their disappearance. He suggested panicked scientists may have misplaced the devices, triggering a cover-up.

The drives, found Friday behind a copying machine, were flown to Washington from the weapons lab in New Mexico. They were being examined electronically to determine with more certainty if they had been tampered with or the data compromised.

``I believe there's been no espionage. It doesn't appear (the drives) left the X Division,'' Richardson said on NBC's ``Meet the Press,'' referring to the highly secure area of the Los Alamos lab where nuclear designers work. The drives disappeared from a vault in the X Division sometime before May 7 and mysteriously reappeared behind a copying machine.

Energy Department officials said the investigation was focusing on ``several'' members of a nuclear emergency response team that had free access to the vault holding the devices. These individuals have made ``contradictory statements'' and given ``suspicious'' answers during polygraph tests, said Edward Curran, the Energy Department's director of counterintelligence.

Richardson said all 26 individuals with access to the vault have had polygraph exams and he pledged that those involved in the disappearance would face discipline. He declined to rule out replacing the University of California, which has managed the Los Alamos lab for more than 50 years.

In a few days, ``We will know what happened,'' Richardson predicted.

The secretary decried the security breakdown but strongly defending his attempts over the past year to improve security in his department's nuclear programs.

But key congressional intelligence committee members said there is no assurance the information has not been compromised. Even though espionage might not have been involved, they said the incident was an inexcusable breach of security for which Richardson should be held personally accountable.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Richardson's explanations and defenses were ``fluff and rhetoric'' and he should step down. ``He's not the man for the job,'' Shelby said on CBS' Face the Nation.

``I don't think ... he's measured up,'' said Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on NBC, adding that Richardson should consider quitting. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., also on the intelligence panel, said Richardson should leave.

President Clinton did not respond Sunday when he was asked by reporters as he entered and left church services if he continues to have confidence in Richardson.

But a White House spokesman, Jim Kennedy, said later: ``We have full confidence in Secretary Richardson, who is working hard to get to the bottom of this. And that kind of a partisan finger-pointing should not be taken too seriously.''

Clinton has expressed dismay over the latest security flap at Los Alamos, where security already was a focus for most of 1999 due to former lab scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was accused of illegally copying secret files and is in jail awaiting trial.

Richardson's frustration also was clear.

``I can't get into human heads,'' he said on NBC, criticizing — as he had often last year — a ``lab culture'' of not taking security seriously enough.

The two hard drives, each about the size of a deck of cards, were found missing from the Los Alamos vault on May 7 when two scientists sought to make sure they were protected from a wildfire that threatened the lab. The next day the lab was evacuated because of the fire threat, but no one reported the devices missing until May 31, prompting an intense investigation.

Investigators said that while one scientist reported seeing the drives in the vault on April 7, it remained unclear when they were last inventoried; they could have been missing longer.

On Friday, the computer drives were found behind a copying machine down the hall from the vault, officials said. The FBI is conducting a criminal investigation on the disappearance.

Six Los Alamos managers, including the head of the nuclear weapons program, are now on paid leave.

But the investigation was focusing on several members of the Nuclear Emergency Response Team, or NEST, a group of scientists whose job it is to rush within hours to the scene of a nuclear accident or terrorist act, find and dismantle a nuclear device. The drives were part of a response ``kit'' giving detailed technical information about both U.S. and foreign nuclear devices, officials said.

The area where the drives were found had been searched before, according to DOE officials, prompting suspicion the devices may have been dropped there on purpose after being kept elsewhere. Richardson speculated some scientists may have misplaced the drives, panicked and tried to cover it up.

Classified as ``secret'' — as opposed to ``top secret'' — the computer drives did not have to be signed in or out when used, making it more difficult to determine who might have had them last, investigators said.

The lack of such tracking brought was criticized by Republican lawmakers at hearings last week, although the security requirements for secret information were eased by President Bush two weeks before he left office in January 1993.

Clinton continued that policy of no longer requiring a running inventory possession of data classified as secret. Richardson said Sunday that checkout procedures were now in effect at Los Alamos for such information.

Republicans also have questioned why the information on the hard drives used by the rapid response team had not been upgraded to top secret.