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New DOE Nuclear Security Organization Begins Work

Philipp C. Bleek

THE CONTROVERSIAL NATIONAL Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) began operation March 1, the congressionally mandated deadline for the organization's launch. The following day, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced that President Clinton will nominate Air Force General John Gordon, currently deputy director of the CIA, to serve in the dual capacity of NNSA director and undersecretary of energy for nuclear security. Under the terms of its implementing legislation, the NNSA will carry out the national security responsibilities of the Department of Energy (DOE), including oversight of the laboratories, factories, and test facilities that make up the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

Congress legislated the creation of the "semi-autonomous" NNSA last year in the wake of allegations of Chinese espionage at the nation's nuclear laboratories. (See ACT, September/October 1999.) Although DOE argued that the new organization would blur lines of authority, impede the energy secretary's ability to manage the nuclear complex, and complicate environmental and safety oversight, President Clinton approved the legislation October 5 after it was linked to the fiscal year 2000 defense appropriations bill. However, Clinton subsequently authorized Richardson to "perform all duties and functions" of the undersecretary of energy for nuclear security, the position created to head the NNSA, essentially subsuming the new organization into DOE and angering congressional Republicans, who had intended to create a more autonomous organization.

After discussions between Richardson and key Republican leaders, Richardson submitted an implementation plan for the organization to Congress in January, and in March announced that he was recommending Gordon as the NNSA's first director. DOE officials expect the White House to formally announce Gordon's nomination in the next few months. Richardson has indicated that he will continue to perform "all duties and functions" of the NNSA director until Gordon's appointment is confirmed by the Senate. (After discussions with Richardson, Senator Pete Domenici [R-NM] introduced legislation March 2 that, if approved, will provide the first director of the NNSA with a three-year term of office.)

Although he ultimately supported the effort to appoint an independent director, Richardson has cross-appointed DOE officials in 18 key NNSA positions, including the general counsel, deputy counsel, chief of counterintelligence, and chief of defense nuclear security. Responding to congressional criticism that the cross-appointments violated the "semi-autonomous" status of the NNSA, Richardson argued at a March 2 House Armed Services Committee hearing that "the dual-hatting authority I have is legal and it's efficient. It's the best way to avoid duplication."


Controversy Continues

On March 14, amid congressional hearings on the new organization and the release of two government reports criticizing DOE's implementation of the NNSA legislation, House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley (R-VA) introduced a bill intended to "strengthen and clarify" DOE's existing internal oversight organization, the Office of Independent Oversight and Performance Assurance. The bill (H.R. 3906) requires the office to report directly to the secretary of energy and to submit annual reports to Congress. Bliley said his bill was "consistent" with the legislation that created the NNSA. Bliley also introduced legislation that would eventually shift oversight of DOE's health, safety, and environmental responsibilities to external agencies.

At a March 16 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee Special Oversight Panel on DOE Reorganization, members excoriated DOE officials for mishandling the formation of the NNSA. Both Republican and Democratic members of the committee, backed by Congressional Research Service testimony, criticized DOE's "dual-hatting" approach to NNSA implementation. The General Accounting Office also submitted testimony, arguing that "DOE's implementation plan simply transfers many of DOE's historic shortcomings to NNSA." Armed Services Committee members argued, however, that because there is not sufficient time for Congress to put together a bill this year, restructuring of the NNSA should be left to the next administration.