Richardson defends weapons labs
March 10, 1999 - AP
WASHINGTON (AP) - Trying to blunt criticism from
Congress, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson says there's
"no evidence" of additional espionage activity in the
federal weapons laboratories.
"With the measures in place and the counterintelligence
presence that we have at the labs now, the polygraphs,
the increased scrutiny ... we believe the problem is
addressed," Richardson said in an interview with The
Richardson said counterintelligence programs have been
increased at the labs and "there's no evidence of any
more (espionage) cases.
Republican lawmakers on Tuesday were questioning
security at U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories and
whether Clinton administration efforts to boost ties
with China delayed a long-standing espionage
investigation at one of the research facilities.
The growing national security controversy erupted after
the Energy Department fired a Chinese-American computer
scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where
he had been under FBI investigation since 1996.
The scientist, Wen Ho Lee, quickly went into hiding. He
has not been charged with a crime, although federal
officials said the FBI investigation was continuing.
Leading the counterattack, Vice President Al Gore on
Tuesday defended the administration's policies toward
China and its investigation of a nuclear weapons
espionage case that he said the administration inherited
from the 1980s.
"Keep in mind that happened in the previous
administration," Gore said in an interview on CNN's
"Late Edition" program. He said "law enforcement
agencies pressed it and pursued it aggressively with our
full support" once the concerns were raised in 1995.
However, Gore and other administration officials left
unanswered why the FBI investigating action was taken
The political sensitivity of the issue was highlighted
Wednesday when Republican presidential candidates Lamar
Alexander and Steve Forbes called for President
Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, to
resign over the issue, and candidate Patrick Buchanan
said Berger should explain what happened or quit.
National security adviser Sandy Berger, traveling with
President Clinton in Central America, said Tuesday
night, "I reject the notion there was any dragging of
Berger said he received a narrow briefing in 1996 on an
alleged espionage case at Los Alamos. Then in July 1997
he got a briefing from Energy officials about China and
"I heard enough in the July '97 briefing to believe we
had a serious problem," Berger said.
Clinton issued a presidential directive in February 1998
ordering stepped up security at the weapons labs and
there hasn't been any allegation of "leakage of
technology" since those safeguards were imposed, said a
senior administration official, speaking on condition of
But the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee
and other lawmakers on Tuesday questioned why the
investigation had taken so long before any action was
"That makes no sense, especially where he'd been
suspected of espionage and they would keep letting him
work there (with) all the security clearances," Sen.
Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the Intelligence panel's
chairman, said in an interview.
Shelby said his committee would question Energy
Secretary Bill Richardson and FBI Director Louis Freeh
at a closed-door hearing next week about the delay and
whether the administration downplayed the incident when
it first surfaced.
Richardson, in a telephone interview Tuesday night,
defended the investigation as "extremely thorough and
vigorous" and said he had no choice but to wait before
taking action against the scientist.
"The moment the FBI gave me the green light to
terminate this individual, I did," said Richardson. He
said he had been advised not to pursue the dismissal
until "a thorough investigation and questioning took
A native of Taiwan, Lee, whom associates describe as
being in his 50s, had worked at the prestigious weapons
research laboratory in New Mexico for about 20 years.
According to U.S. Officials, he became a prime suspect
of an espionage investigation as early as 1996.
The investigation was triggered by the concerns of U.S.
Intelligence agents that China in the 1980s had obtained
top secret information on nuclear warhead technology
that allowed the Chinese to develop miniaturized nuclear
warheads so that more than one warhead could be
delivered on a single missile. Nuclear scientists at Los
Alamos had developed the technology.
With the administration under sharp attack from
congressional Republicans, Gore sought to contain the
damage and also defend the administration's broader
efforts to work with China.
"China is the most populous country in the world. Its
economy is growing and its role in the world is going to
continue to grow whether we want that or not," Gore
said. "And so, obviously, having a relationship with
them within which we can try to affect their behavior
... (is) in our best interest. We do that without
compromising our interests in any way."
The flap over China's alleged theft of nuclear weapons
secrets and questions about the speed of the
investigation fueled what already had been long-standing
criticism from Republican lawmakers about U.S.
technology transfers to China. GOP-led congressional
committees in 1997 also investigated but were unable to
prove whether China had tried to buy influence in the
1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.
Several foreign-born business owners, including some
with connections to China, have been charged as part of
the Justice Department's investigation into campaign
A senior administration official, traveling with Clinton
in Latin America, acknowledged that it was clear before
1998 that the weapons labs "were enormously porous."
He said other countries, not just China, "had access
that was troublesome" because scientists from around
the world did nuclear work at the facilities.
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