SPURRED BY THE COX Report's allegations of Chinese espionage at U.S. nuclear weapons labs and a blistering report by a high-level investigative panel that concluded the Department of Energy (DOE) is incapable of reforming itself, both the House of Representatives and the Senate are considering legislation that would create a semi-autonomous agency within DOE to manage the nation's nuclear weapons complex. As of late June, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson continued to express strong opposition to any restructuring plan that called for the creation of a separate entity either within or outside his department.
The two similar bills—one sponsored by Representative Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and the other by Republican Senators Pete Domenici (NM), Jon Kyl (AZ) and Frank Murkowski (AK)—would establish a new agency to take control of DOE's nuclear weapons production facilities, laboratories and related operations offices. The administrator of the new agency would be "dual-hatted" as an undersecretary of energy, reporting directly to the secretary of energy.
Secretary Richardson's objections to the reorganization plan have focused on whether the new agency would be bound by policies established by other DOE offices. Both the House and the Senate proposals would give the agency administrator autonomy from the department in establishing counterintelligence, security and safety policies.
In response to espionage at the weapons labs, Richardson gave new authority to DOE's Office of Counterintelligence, and in May announced the establishment of two new high-level offices for Security and Emergency Operations and for Independent Oversight and Performance Assurance. He has objected that those reforms, meant to increase the department's control over the weapons complex, would be undermined if the new agency were allowed to set its own policies.
Rudman Panel Reports
The move to reform DOE was bolstered by the report of a special investigative panel of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, led by former Senator Warren Rudman. (See feature.) The Rudman Report, requested in March by President Clinton to examine security at the weapons laboratories and released on June 15, describes DOE as a "dysfunctional bureaucracy that has proven it is incapable of reforming itself" and calls for the creation of an autonomous or semi-autonomous Agency for Nuclear Stewardship. Similar to proposals now being considered by Congress, the Rudman panel urges the new agency head be made an undersecretary of energy and report directly to the secretary of energy.
The presidential panel strongly advised against giving control of the nuclear weapons complex to the Defense Department and affirmed the validity of the "government-owned, contractor-operated" system used by the nuclear labs. The panel also recommended that the laboratories' Foreign Visitors' and Assignments Program continue, though with a greater emphasis on security.
The Rudman Report praised the national laboratories for their "brilliant scientific breakthroughs," but concluded that their lackadaisical approach to security and their ongoing resistance to reform could only be addressed by legislative reorganization of DOE. Referring to the administration's February 1998 order to improve security in the Energy Department, the panel reported that it had never encountered "an agency with the bureaucratic insolence to dispute, delay, and resist implementation of a Presidential directive on security, as DOE's bureaucracy tried to do to the Presidential Decision Directive No. 61...."
The Rudman panel also took issue with the Cox Report and with Secretary Richardson's response to it. (See ACT, April/May 1999.) Agreeing with damage assessments made by the Intelligence Community and a review panel led by retired Admiral David Jeremiah, the Rudman Report criticized the Cox panel's work, observing "many attempts to take the valuable coin of damaging new information and decrease its value by manufacturing its counterfeit, innuendo; possible damage has been minted as probable disaster; workaday delay and bureaucratic confusion have been cast as diabolical conspiracies." Richardson, while receiving praise for his energetic approach to reform of DOE, was criticized for overstating his success in improving security when he asserted after the Cox Report's release in May that "our nation's nuclear secrets are, today, safe and secure."