Proposed agency no threat to DOE research

The head of a presidential advisory panel told the House Science Committee last week that a proposal to create a new nuclear weapons agency would not disrupt unclassified scientific research performed at Energy Department laboratories.

Former Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), who now heads the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, said DOE labs are "probably the crown jewels of the world scientific establishment" and that his panel was careful not to "propose anything that undermines their effectiveness."

Last month Rudman's group concluded that DOE's security problems - highlighted by a recent alleged spy case involving nuclear weapons information and charges of poor security safeguards - could only be solved by creating an autonomous or semiautonomous nuclear weapons agency within DOE. A group of senators said two weeks ago that they plan to put that recommendation into law.

But the proposal has raised concerns that scientists who conduct unclassified research, including more than $100 million annually in computer science studies, would lose their access to the knowledge and equipment of their colleagues at the weapons labs, while weapons scientists would not be able to share the basic research findings of the science labs.

At a rare joint Senate hearing two weeks ago before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Armed Services Committee, the Governmental Affairs Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said the plan could threaten the quality of basic science at the weapons labs by creating a "bureaucratic Berlin Wall" between the weapons labs and the science labs.

Jeff Richardson, director of communications for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said the lab shared Secretary Richardson's concern.

"We have over 50 years of nuclear research that has been [made] better because of scientific interaction with other scientists outside of the nuclear weapons complex," he said.

The department also works closely with outside researchers on its Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative project, which aims to make supercomputing speeds 1,000 times faster.

However, Livermore's Richardson said it is too early to tell how the ASCI program might be affected by changes to the department's structure.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who chairs the House Science Committee, suggested that all DOE labs be part of the proposed new agency. Rudman said that doing so would "dilute the effectiveness of counterintelligence" at the weapons labs.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ralph Hall (D-Texas) asked whether the civilian research done by scientists at the weapons labs would become less of a priority and cause researchers to quit. Rudman said he expects Congress to continue to fund these programs at such a level that they would maintain the same profile within the labs.

The advisory board's plan would be put into effect under an amendment to the fiscal 2000 intelligence bill planned by Sens. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.). The measure awaited floor action last week.

"To achieve the kind of protection that these sensitive labs must have, they and their functions must have their own autonomous operational structure free of all the other obligations imposed by DOE management," Murkowski said at the recent Senate hearing. The structure would be similar to how the National Security Agency and the Defense Advanced Research Proj-ects Agency are set up. "The Department of Energy has a dysfunctional bureaucratic culture that has proven it is incapable of reforming itself," Murkowski said.

The advisory board issued its report about three months after President Clinton ordered a comprehensive review of security failures at DOE. In addition to recommending the creation of the new agency, the board suggested that the weapons labs institute a broad and detailed program to protect all computer workstations, networks, links and related systems from all forms of potential compromise.

In addition, document controls for the most sensitive weapons data should be reinstituted, and new classification guidance to define and ensure awareness of information and technologies that require protection should be introduced, the report said.

However, Secretary Richardson said at the Senate hearing that while he already has begun to implement some changes and supports about 90 percent of the report's recommendations, he opposes the creation of an independent weapons agency within DOE that would not report directly to him. The move would undermine his authority and would not necessarily solve the security and intelligence problems that the department is experiencing, he said.

"Security and counterintelligence problems cut across all of the department's missions and are not limited to the weapons labs and production sites," he said.

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