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Punishments At Nuke Lab?

Citing a "total breakdown" in the system, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson strongly recommended that officials at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab be disciplined for their alleged involvement in the mishandling of the China spy investigation.

A former director of the lab and two former counterintelligence officers are suspected of botching the investigation of the case and its attempts to limit the damage.

"The clear message here is responsibility and accountability, Richardson said.

Neither Richardson nor Los Alamos officials would name the three officials, citing privacy policies.

But government sources familiar with the recommendation identified the officials as:

  • Siegfried Hecker, who was director of the lab from 1986 to 1997 and remains on the staff as a research scientist.
  • Robert Vrooman, former chief of the lab's counterintelligence office, now retired but working as a part-time consultant to the lab.
  • Terry Craig, a former counterintelligence officer, who is still employed in another job at the lab.
Hecker, who stepped down as lab director in November 1997 to return to full-time research after heading the lab for nearly 12 years, likely will be the highest-ranking official to face disciplinary action arising from the China spy controversy.

John Browne, who succeeded Hecker as director, said in a statement he would decide shortly what action to take. Â"I intend to act as quickly as possible, but I must ensure fairness in this process,Â" he said.

Richardson cannot directly take action against the Los Alamos employees because they work for the University of California, the private contractor that has managed the lab in New Mexico since the 1940s.

Richardson took the action after reviewing a report by the DOE's inspector general into the mishandling of a three-year investigation into alleged espionage by a Los Alamos computer scientist, Wen Ho Lee.

Lee was fired in March after being under scrutiny by the FBI since 1996, for possibly giving nuclear secrets to China in the 1980s. Lee, who has not been charged with a crime, has denied giving any secrets away.

The IG report concluded that failures by Hecker, Vrooman and Craig contributed to Lee being allowed continued access to top-secret information while the FBI investigation dragged on for nearly three years, and for the failure of investigators to search Lee's computer until earlier this year.

The IG report also cited Â"systemic problemsÂ" in the Energy Department's management of counterintelligence matters and said some senior officials in Washington paid little attention to the Lee case, maintaining it was not their responsibility.

They Â"were not aware, nor did they seek essential informationÂ" about Lee's status and his access to nuclear secrets as the FBI investigation floundered, the IG investigators concluded.

Nevertheless, the inspector general concluded tha there was insufficient evidence to warrant sanctions against the senior DOE officials, most of whom no longer are in the department.

Richardson said he was Â"frustratedÂ" that the factual record examined by the IG's office Â"isn't clearer about who knew what whenÂ" concerning Lee's continued access to Los Alamos secrets long after the FBI investigation began.

Â"There was a total breakdown in the system and there's plenty of blame to go around,Â" he said.

According to the IG report and department sources, it was decided Hecker should face some discipline because he failed to follow through on a specific request by DOE management to limit Lee's access to secrets while under investigation.

Vrooman, according to a recent report released by a Senate committee, had been told in 1997 by an FBI agent assigned to the Albuquerque office that Lee could be reassigned away from the super-secret weapons design team without jeopardizing the investigation. Yet, no reassignment was made until late 1998.

Craig, according to government officials, failed to notify the FBI that Lee actually had signed a privacy waiver that specifically gave permission for such a computer search.

Without this knowledge, the Justice Department adamantly opposed a search, which finally took place earlier this year after Lee had been fired. Investigators discovered Lee had shifted thousands of files of top-secret nuclear computer codes from a highly secure computer system to an unclassified system with access to the Internet.

According to a congressional report, China has obtained secret information on U.S. nuclear warheads and the neutron bomb at least in part from information at the Los Alamos laboratory.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report