Berger: I won't quit over security flap

March 11, 1999 - AP

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Clinton's top adviser on national security, rejecting suggestions by some Republicans that he resign, says the administration reacted properly and swiftly to security concerns at federal nuclear weapons labs in the mid-1990s.

"The actions that we took as a government, I believe were appropriate," Sandy Berger said Wednesday. "They were in the national interest, and I believe we acted swiftly."

Earlier in the day there were calls from GOP presidential aspirants for Berger to resign because, they said, he had not moved quickly enough to recognize serious security breaches at the national labs when he learned of an investigation in 1996 that China may have obtained top-secret nuclear warhead information from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in the 1980s.

"I have no intention of resigning," Berger told reporters in Guatemala City, where he was accompanying Clinton on a tour of Latin America.

The fallout continued Wednesday from the firing earlier in the week of a scientist at Los Alamos, one of more than a dozen labs scattered around the country, after the scientist had been the target of three-year FBI espionage investigation.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said he was to be briefed soon by the FBI on the Los Alamos investigation. Several congressional hearings on the subject were scheduled for next week.

And the controversy also became entwined in early presidential campaign politics.

While the suspected espionage at Los Alamos occurred during the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan, GOP presidential aspirants lashed out at the Clinton White House for not moving fast enough to investigate it and address security problems at the labs when the suspected espionage became known in the mid-1990s.

The prime target was Berger, who then was deputy national security adviser.

"If the information is accurate then Sandy Berger should not have time to resign. He should be fired," declared Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., who is a presidential aspirant. Smith, chairman of a Senate Armed Services subcommittee, also said he would raise the Los Alamos issue at a hearing next week.

Commentator Pat Buchanan, who also is running for president, said Berger "ought to explain his actions to the country or resign," and fellow GOP presidential hopefuls Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes also called for Berger's resignation.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart dismissed it all as "Republican attack politics."

"I reject the notion there was any dragging of feet" in administration response to the Los Alamos investigation, Berger said.

Berger said he had first learned of the FBI investigation in a routine intelligence briefing in 1996. "This was very preliminary. The FBI had just begun investigating," he said.

It would be nearly another year, in July 1997, before a more detailed Energy Department briefing on the investigation would prompt him to conclude there was a serious security problem at the labs.

"The July 1997 briefing was troubling and raised serious questions and warranted a significant response," Berger said. He said it was "absolutely not" true that U.S policy of engaging China in trade and other matters in any way influenced the response to the Los Alamos investigation.

Berger said he asked that the CIA evaluate what security damage might have occurred and that an interagency task force reviewed how security could be improved at the labs. Six months later, in February 1998, Clinton issued a formal presidential directive imposing new safeguards on the labs.

It directed tighter security checks on foreign visitors to labs and called for additional counterintelligence personnel at the Energy Department. The department brought in a former FBI agent, Edward J. Curran, to head a new counterintelligence office and doubled the office's spending.

Law enforcement and security officials said Wednesday they were frustrated for some time about weapons lab security and what they viewed as a lack of emphasis on counterintelligence. With the arrival of Bill Richardson, the former U.N. ambassador, as energy secretary last year, they said new emphasis was put on security concerns.

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