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 Associated Press.

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 this week.

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 feet."

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 the labs.

"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 anonymity.

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 taken.

"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 place."

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 finance abuses.

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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