March 17, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate Intelligence Committee will go behind closed doors Wednesday to discuss the security breach at the Los Alamos National Laboratory that led to the firing of one of the lab's scientists.
Richardson says security has been stepped up dramatically at each of the nation's five nuclear weapons labs. But Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, disagrees.
He told CNN on Wednesday that security at U.S. nuclear labs "has been too loose too long and there is too much at stake."
Separately, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee accuses the Clinton administration of a direct "cover-up" that compromised national security.
Comments by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, were some of the most critical of President Clinton since last week, when news broke of the Los Alamos leak and possible Chinese government-backed espionage at U.S. nuclear laboratories.
"I'm saying they intentionally hid it," Inhofe told CNN's "Crossfire" on Tuesday, following Richardson's testimony before the Armed Services panel.
"This is a cover-up. This is very, very serious. At the same time all this was happening, this president signed a waiver to allow guidance technology to be used by the Chinese on missiles -- on missiles that are actually targeting the United States."
He added: "Could this president have been tried on impeachment for the wrong crime?"
Shelby, asked by CNN on Wednesday if he shared Inhofe's view, declined to comment. "We're just now getting into the factual situation of why our labs are so insecure," he replied.
Richardson, also appearing on "Crossfire," defended the administration, saying it acted promptly to notify "all of the appropriate committees of Congress." He said officials were still assessing damages from the leak and that "there's plenty of blame to spread around."
"The issue is how much damage happened. We don't know that yet. We will know that. (There was) serious damage but the extent of it, we don't know yet," Richardson said.
He said the Energy Department has taken measures so that "this shouldn't happen again," including doubling its counterintelligence budget, tightening security controls and running background checks on scientists from sensitive countries.
His comments were similar to his testimony earlier in the day before the Senate Armed Services Committee where Republicans accused the Clinton administration of keeping mum on the apparent nuclear security breach.
"I believe that at our weapons labs right now, we have strong security procedures. We want to work with this committee on how we can improve that," Richardson said.
Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Virginia, said Richardson had taken "timely and prudent" action since he became head of the Energy Department in September. "But," added Warner, "this senator cannot say that about this administration and how they have dealt with this issue over a period of time."
The CIA and Justice Department are investigating the leaks, and are looking closely at Chinese officials who may have tried to gain secrets from sensitive U.S. installations, particularly Beijing operatives who were in contact with Los Alamos computer scientist Wen Ho Lee.
Lee was fired last week for "security violations," his former boss John Browne told CNN. Investigators believe the leaks began in the mid-1980s and were first discovered in 1995.
Lee has not been charged with any crime. The reason why, Shelby told CNN, might be clarified after the Intelligence Committee hears from Freeh on Wednesday.
"Espionage cases sometimes are hard to prove," the Alabama senator said. It may take "years to get the right evidence together but, perhaps, we will (know more) after we hear from the FBI director today."
A former aide to President George Bush says the political nature of the nuclear espionage debate is a legacy of attacks made by Democrats as Bill Clinton campaigned against Bush before the 1992 presidential election.
"There is a lot of politics in this. The (Clinton) administration set itself up for it," said Douglas Paal, former director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council.
"Democrats went after Republicans on the same issue" in 1991 and 1992, he told CNN on Wednesday.
"They said China policy was being irresponsibly handled. When President Clinton came in, he took an unabashedly confrontational stance toward China, which was counterproductive and led to a reversal of policy in 1996."
Now, says Paal, the Democrats find themselves in a position similar "to what President Bush occupied as his China stance at that time."
"(Democrats) are finding that the Republicans are putting the same ammunition on them that they turned on President Bush in his day."
Correspondent Andrea Koppel contributed to this report.
GOP senator accuses Clinton administration of 'cover-up' in spy case
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