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Crossfire

Can the Clinton Administration Be Trusted To Protect National Secrets?

Aired June 19, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R-AL), CHMN., SELECT CMTE. ON INTELLIGENCE: It's time for Secretary Richardson to go. I don't believe that he has served this country well.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, calls for the resignation of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson after those computer hard drives are lost, and found at Los Alamos. Should he go? And can the administration ever be trusted to protect national secrets?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL RICHARDSON, U.S. ENERGY SECRETARY: I will not -- and I repeat -- I will not take a back seat to those that say I have not put in strong security measures at all our labs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Mary Matalin.

In the CROSSFIRE, Republican Congressman Porter Goss of Florida, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and Democratic Congressman Marty Meehan of Massachusetts.

PRESS: Good evening, welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Missing a computer disk? Don't forget to look behind the copying machine. That is where two missing hard drives containing nuclear secrets turned up Friday at Los Alamos Nuclear Lab. The good news is they were found. The bad news is they got lost in the first place, leading the FBI to conduct a criminal investigation focused on a few lab employees to find out who is responsible.

This latest security problem on top of last year's indictment of scientist Wen Ho Lee for mishandling nuclear documents at the lab has prompted some Republicans to call for Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's head.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JON KYL (R), ARIZONA: Accepting full responsibility is not blaming others, as you heard him do today. It is understanding that he was the one, by his own choice, who chose to accept and therefore he has to bear the consequences, and I believe he ought to step down.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: But Richardson, who will testify before Congress this Wednesday, insists he is not stepping down.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARDSON: I believe there has been no espionage. It doesn't appear that the disk left the X Division. The possibility here is of human error and mistake, and somebody concerned that they might lose their job, and they tried to cover up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: So, was it just human error, or something a lot more serious?

Is Bill Richardson in trouble, or is he being made a political scapegoat?

Two members of Congress step into the CROSSFIRE.

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Congressman, thanks as always for joining us.

This national security lapse, this latest was the talk of the Sunday shows, the airwaves were blanketed. This is -- comes from the Republican campaign, take a listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have recently witnessed another mishap involving top-secret nuclear information at Los Alamos. America's nuclear security should not be a matter of lost and found.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATALIN: All right, obviously, what Governor Bush is speaking to is this latest incident, but let's take a step back, because all Americans are concerned. We seem to have a systemic problem here.

As Bill mentioned, before the lost-and-found hard drives there was the Wen Ho Lee downloading, then at the State Department there was the missing laptops from a conference room, there was the sophisticated bugs in the conference room, there was the infamous man in the tweed jacket who walked right into the secretary of state's outer office and left with a pile of classified documents. Over at -- the GAO has infiltrated with phony badges the CIA, the Pentagon, the Department of Justice, the FBI. What's going on in this administration? That doesn't even account for either the CIA former director who has an insecure computer at his home. Don't you think, sitting on the committees that you do, that this represents something symptomatic of this entire administration, the systemic laxity of concern about national security?

REP. MARTY MEEHAN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Well, first of all, with regard to the labs, there is an investigation that is ongoing. The Counterintelligence Office of the Department of Energy is conducting an investigation with the FBI, and it is very concerning how these disks could be missing for a period of weeks.

That is why competent people need to conduct a competent investigation and determine what happened. The secondly, I think there is a problem with this -- in the labs, determined something is not top secret -- it's secret now, because there are fewer bureaucratic hurdles to get over.

That is a policy that was started -- I'm sure this is no surprise to you -- by President Bush. And I think we need to relook at that policy that President Bush instituted and maybe it means that we need to hire of more people to not be afraid of a bureaucratic system to go through before something is classified as top-secret rather than secret.

But we let -- we ought to have a competent investigation. I think it's unfortunate that national security issues sometimes become political fodder in a political year, but let's see what this investigation determines. And there have been improvements made in the labs. Many of the problems, Mary, as you know, go back the Bush administration, the Reagan administration.

MATALIN: OK...

MEEHAN: The University of California has had a contract there for 50 years, so these didn't just -- problems just pop up yesterday.

MATALIN: OK, true, true, true, true.

But this is something that Secretary Richardson made a top priority or so he said in the wake of the Wen Ho Lee downloading and misuse of this classified information. This is exactly what he said repeatedly, Secretary Richardson at that time.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARDSON: I can assure the American people that their nuclear secrets are now safe at the labs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATALIN: OK, showing outrage then...

MEEHAN: So he... MATALIN: Madeleine Albright showing equal outrage when these computers and documents disappeared from the State Department. Every head of every Clinton administrator showing outrage when these security breaches occur under their direction.

You can talk about Bush, you can talk about the University of California, but there has never been as widespread lapse in security as there has in this administration.

MEEHAN: Well, yes, but Mary, the reality is that Bill Richardson has instituted a number of procedures, one of them is to actual physical security polygraph tests for the scientists who work there. So, they have begun the process. That doesn't mean somebody isn't going to make a mistake, and if somebody made a mistake they ought to be held accountable. That is why you conduct these investigations.

But let's hold people accountable after we have the facts, you -- look it. Any secretary of energy or any president can't be responsible for a scientist who may have mislaid in an area where he shouldn't have -- may have mislaid material. But you know, he should have had to sign out that material beforehand. And you know why he didn't sign out, Mary?

MATALIN: We're going to get to that.

MEEHAN: Because it wasn't classified as top secret, it was rather classified as secret. And you know why that was? Because George Bush when he was president instituted new policies.

MATALIN: OK, all right, it's all Bush's fault.

PRESS: Mr. Chairman, let me ask you as -- I have heard conflicting reports today, I would just like to hear it from you directly.

As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, do you believe that Secretary Richardson should resign, yes or no?

REP. PORTER GOSS (R-FL), CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I believe that is his decision to make. It is not my decision. If the president of the United States wants to make it, it is his decision as well. I have stated publicly I think that Bill Richardson ought to take a very close look at this, because I don't think he served our nation well and I don't think he served our president well. And I'm sorry to say that, because he is a colleague and he is a friend.

But going back to the situation that we've got in front of us right now, Mary didn't quite list the full litany of all the problems in the Clinton-Gore administration with their -- sort of this disdain they have for national security. It is because they have put political correctness at a higher level, a higher priority, in the way they go about their business.

And I will give you the whole Defense Department vetting process, the vetting of the White House personnel at the beginning of this, and this business about the Bush-Reagan being blamed for this because of some reason of change of the law. That is Democratic spin, that is Democratic Party spin, and all the spin in the world is not going to change the fact that national security is wobbling badly at the labs, and Bill Richardson is in charge.

PRESS: Mr. Chairman, you can count on me before long to document to you all the lapses in security under Ronald Reagan and George Bush that time permits.

But let me stick right now with Secretary Richardson.

GOSS: And you will find that they exempted the atomic energy matters.

PRESS: If your goal, which I believe it is -- both of you -- to fix the problems at these labs, which have been problems for a long time, let me just ask you honestly...

GOSS: Then why are you asking me about Richardson if you want to talk about the labs?

PRESS: That is my very question, thank you.

GOSS: Thank you.

PRESS: What purpose -- how would Bill Richardson's resignation help you achieve that goal? It doesn't do anything. It's just a political cheap shot, isn't it?

GOSS: The issue of Bill Richardson is not the issue, the issue at the labs is what went wrong...

PRESS: But some of your colleagues, Congressman, are making it the issue?

GOSS: Wait a minute, hold on. We've got national security information that is vital. This is not joking or laughing matter; this is serious stuff that could do serious damage to the United States of America, its allies, innocent bystanders, Americans home abroad, in the wrong hands. And there are lots of wrong hands out there. So that's the first problem.

The second problem is, we have got a period of unknown length here, weeks, months -- who knows how long -- of unaccountability of this material. Now, we need to find out. The secretary said there may be espionage, but he has no evidence of it. But there is no evidence there is not espionage. So we have to deal with that.

Then we go into the practices, the procedures, the enforcement that is going on in the culture that they have to deal with out there. All of these areas, there are red flags of problems, they have been there for a couple of years, the committees have pointed them out. Bill Richardson said, I have it under control, I've implemented changes. He hasn't, he thinks he's implemented changes, he's promulgated them, but the changes haven't actually taken place.

PRESS: Well, let me suggest to you, Congressman, that there are others who do believe -- who don't agree with you, including the head of...

GOSS: About what?

PRESS: That Bill Richardson hasn't acted, including the head of the FBI...

GOSS: That has what?

PRESS: ... counterintelligence, who says just recently here, yesterday...

MEEHAN: He totally upgraded the physical security there, he's instituted polygraphs for employees.

PRESS: Yes, listen to this.

GOSS: Right, but they haven't taken them, that is the point. You are missing the word.

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: Please, before you respond, may I ask you listen to the head of FBI counterintelligence about Secretary Richardson.

GOSS: Sure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EDWARD CURRAN, DIR. OF COUNTERINTELLIGENCE, U.S. ENERGY DEPARTMENT: He is the first secretary in 10 years, to initiate more procedures within the last year than anybody has done in the last 10 years. So I think in that, he has to be given fairness in saying he's taken this on and he's challenging it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: Now he may not have finished the job, but he's working on it.

GOSS: Yes, but you didn't print the rest of the statement. The rest of the statement that the director of CIA has said is that we basically do not have the security protection we need right now at the Los Alamos labs...

PRESS: Well, we all heard him.

GOSS: ... And we have done a review of that, and they call the progress under Bill Richardson a dismal failure. That's a matter of public record at a public hearing before the United States Congress. So we have conflicting views, it seems, about this.

MEEHAN: I think we all agree that there have been security lapses that are very serious in nature and we ought to do something about it, but that doesn't mean you get into this election year banter back and forth...

GOSS: There's no election year...

MEEHAN: ... on national security.

GOSS: This is not...

MEEHAN: I saw the Sunday talk shows, all the leaders of the Republican Party salivating at the chance to politicize this issue. Let's improve security...

GOSS: Marty...

MATALIN: Well...

MEEHAN: ... That's what we ought to do.

GOSS: The truth is, Marty, that we were being asked questions, as you very well know, by people in the media who are trying to stoke this thing up into a partisan matter. It is not a partisan matter. There's one flag at the top of the pole, it's the U.S. flag and it's national security...

MEEHAN: That sounds great to me.

GOSS: ... and we all agree with that.

MATALIN: And those who care about security, including Democrats -- let me quote to you a Democratic colleague of yours, going to the tracking issue. This is where this is so easily corrected, which has not been corrected. And he said, "Most Americans would find it hard to believe that the public library has a more sophisticated tracking system for Winnie the Pooh than Los Alamos for highly classified nuclear weapons data." That's a Democrat speaking.

MEEHAN: I agree. We're in agreement on that. I absolutely agree...

MATALIN: But that could have been fixed after Wen Ho Lee.

MEEHAN: ... That information should have been signed out. But let's have a competent investigation by competent people. Let's not -- we're going to have congressional hearings now, we're going to -- let the FBI do their job. And once they come out with a report, I don't know if the contract with the University of California should be terminated. Perhaps it should. I don't know whether John Browne, the person who runs that center, should be fired. Maybe he should. But let's wait and make our decisions based on the facts, not based on the fact that -- that there's election year banter back and forth.

MATALIN: All right, well that's what we're going to come back to when we come back. Who should be -- not who should be terminated at Los Alamos, but did this whole operation terminate Secretary Richardson's chance to be on the Democratic ticket?

Stay with us on CROSSFIRE.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) MATALIN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

The no-nonsense energy secretary, Bill Richardson, is trying to make sense of a series of high-level security breaches at the Los Alamos Nuclear Labs and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright can't explain to disappearing laptops or bugged conference rooms. Is the Clinton administration culture lax on security? Has Bill Richardson lost a shot at a possible Gore administration?

On national security policy and politics, Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan of the Armed Services Committee and Florida Representative, Porter Goss chairman of the Intelligence Committee -- Bill.

PRESS: Mr. Chairman, I'm sure you remember Admiral James Watkins, who was energy secretary for President Bush when he came into office. President Bush told him to look at the nuclear labs, because he said security there was a complete mess. He did. And I think he worked hard at trying to fix some of those problems.

He admitted when he left he hadn't done everything that he wanted to do, yet under his tenure there were foreign agents who came into the labs, it was reported, and stole nuclear secrets. There was also the Chinese agents who stole information for making a neutron bomb, and there was a security file on a scientist at Los Alamos that was missing and never found. His name happened to be Wen Ho Lee, who turned up a couple years later.

I am not pointing the finger at Admiral Watkins, who I think was trying to fix it. But wouldn't you have to admit, the security problems go far -- started far before Bill Richardson's term?

GOSS: In fact I would go back to Project Manhattan, because as you may recall...

PRESS: Thank you -- right.

GOSS: ... we had a rather celebrated spy case about them.

PRESS: Yes.

GOSS: We have got, always, a problem about creating the innovation, the creativity, the breakthrough that you need to develop these kinds of weapons and have this kind of progress, which has stood our country in very good stead in sort of the academic freedom circles. And that's why the University of California has been a good contractor in my view.

But we have the contradiction of, in that academic freedom, of trying to protect the conversation.

PRESS: Right.

GOSS: Now if you talk to one of the academicians and say, look, this is great. You talk to all your buddies here, but you can't talk to your buddies over there, even though there may be a good foreign exchange going or something, it's very hard for them to understand. They don't want to play. So there is a conflict. But that is a well- recognized problem. The oversight committees have finally said in this age of new technology, look, we've got a serious problem here. We've got to do something. And Bill Richardson came in and said, give me my chance. I'll be back in a year. He said that a year ago. Well, he's back in a year, but not quite the way he thought.

Meantime, Congress spoke. And we've put out a new regulation to deal with the security. We were so concerned about the security at the labs, primarily because of the Cox-Dicks report. But this just re-energized us. We did it. Bill said, I'll take it, he ran with it, and unfortunately he stumbled with it.

PRESS: Just a quick follow-up. You mentioned -- you mention a conflict between science, research, these scientists and secrecy...

GOSS: It's real.

PRESS: ... Isn't another conflict the fact that these labs are multifaceted? They're dealing with nuclear secrets, but they're also dealing with climate change, with biology and other kinds of projects. So you've got a mix of people there in what should be a highly classified institution, correct?

GOSS: It is true that there is a mix, but security is manageable. The real laxity in security -- if you really want to know, the truth is it's not Bush or Reagan or Clinton or Gore. It was Hazel O'Leary who started the problem here. And she had a political correctness fetish about getting all of this badge colors the same so everybody felt good about everybody, and it caused us some problems. Now that laxity we are paying for in a number of ways, but it set a culture.

MATALIN: I am loathe, Congressman, to talk about politics here, but it's pretty difficult to avoid it since Secretary Richardson has held such a prominent position on Vice President Gore's vice presidential short list, OK?

MEEHAN: Sure.

MATALIN: So that's how politics got dragged into this. It wasn't political scapegoating. And about politics, this is what Majority Leader Lott had to say this weekend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MS), MAJORITY LEADER: Secretary Bill Richardson has been globe-trotting, he's been going to political events, many think he's been running for vice president. He has not been paying attention to this problem.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATALIN: You know why the majority leader can say that that way? Because this is true. The secretary cut short a trip to -- a visit to India -- India talking about -- in meetings, talking about nuclear proliferation, to scurry back, to do debate prep with the vice president in New Hampshire when he was running against Bradley.

I actually don't blame this secretary. I blame this administration where politics always takes precedent over policy. Isn't secretary Lott right to make that observation?

MEEHAN: No. He's playing politics. And I think, on a national security matter like this, he shouldn't be.

Look Bill Richardson has his work cut out for him. He's got to roll up his sleeve. He's got to work with this investigation, work with the FBI, determine the culpability of people who work in the labs. I agree with a lot of what Porter said relative to the different worlds in academia or in the national security questions. There have been problems at these labs for years. Bill Richardson has his work cut out for him.

But, you know, to charge that Bill Richardson, because he supports Al Gore, somehow hasn't been doing his job, he has got to roll up his sleeve and solve this problem. There are major problems in the Department of Energy. And I think, in the long run, he'll be determined -- what happens to him will be based on his performance at correcting an agency that needs a lot of work.

MATALIN: Well, and prior to this, Bill Richardson himself said about our energy policy he was -- we, the administration, was asleep at the switch. That's why we have these surging...

MEEHAN: Well, I don't think it was on the whole energy policy.

MATALIN: ... these surging -- on these gas prices.

MEEHAN: That was over the question of reserves.

MATALIN: All right.

MEEHAN: That was over the question of...

MATALIN: No energy policy, high gas prices -- asleep at the switch on that. Asleep at switch on this. I'm just saying appearance sake -- I happen to like Secretary Richardson -- I like -- appearance sake, shouldn't he be trotting around the country with Vice President Gore?

MEEHAN: Well, I don't know that he is trotting around the country. The fact is when you're a cabinet secretary, there are many official things that you do to bring you around the country. Looking at cutting edge technology, trying to find a way to protect -- in cybercomputer security. There is a lot of work that requires him to be around the country, but he's done a pretty...

PRESS: We're almost out of -- I'm sorry, Mike. We're almost out of time. I just want to ask you. I talked to somebody close to this investigation today, said what they think happened -- it's down to like I hear three or four people now -- is that somebody took these disks, was working on them, then they're discovered missing. Realized, oh my God, I'm going to be the next Wen Ho Lee and slipped in there and put them back in. If that's what happened, can you blame Bill Richardson for that?

GOSS: Yes. I pray you're right, that that's what happened because that means there'd be no loss or no damage to our national security. But Bill Richardson is responsible for that type of material to be under control all the time. And that was out of control. There are changes that need to be made.

PRESS: That's got to be the last word. I'm sorry, gentlemen. Thank you very much for coming in. We'll get you back when we fix the problem, or closer to it at any rate.

And Mary Matalin and I will be back with our top secret closing comments, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Mary, President Reagan appointed three energy secretaries. One was an oral surgeon, one was a soft drink executive, and the other was a deputy White House political director. None of them knew or did anything about security or secrecy. No wonder Bill Richardson has some problems. I don't think you Republicans should be trying to lynch him...

MATALIN: No one is...

PRESS: ... for solving problems that started under Reagan and Bush.

MATALIN: You always make this personal. No one's trying to lynch...

PRESS: They're making it personal.

MATALIN: ... Richardson. It starts from the top. This is a Clinton problem. From the very beginning days, there has been no respect for security. FBI files in the basement, the selling of our nuclear secrets to China for campaign dollars, this starts at the top. This isn't Richardson. It's a culture of laxity endemic to this administration.

PRESS: More allegations. Secretary -- Senator Shelby, who is a Republican, has called for Bill Richardson to resign.

MATALIN: Former Democrat.

PRESS: Senator Kyl, who is a Republican, has called for Bill Richardson to resign. What do you mean the Republicans are not trying to scapegoat them? They're trying to lynch him. It's unfair.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: From the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again tomorrow night for more CROSSFIRE.

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