Archive for Tuesday, June 15, 1999


June 15, 1999


— Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., is on a roll.

Thanks to his committee's well-received report detailing Chinese espionage at government weapons labs, Cox is enjoying some of the most favorable press coverage in recent Washington history.

"Cox has achieved what some saw as impossible: bipartisan agreement in the era of the politics of personal destruction," gushed a recent article in the Washington Post.

By sharing the spotlight with committee Democrats -- and refusing to engage in the type of partisan bomb-throwing that's characterized previous Clinton scandals -- Cox has become popular enough that some Republicans are urging him to run for the U.S. Senate next year.

Yet the accolades have come at a cost: The White House damage control machine stripped the public report of many details that would have been embarrassing to Clinton.

And sources tell us that political considerations also kept the report from identifying what many see as the root of the security problem: lax oversight and management by the University of California, which has run three Department of Energy labs for more than 50 years. Though Cox is a graduate of the University of Southern California, he represents a district that includes the University of California-Irvine.

A close examination of the public record suggests that much of the criticism focused on the DOE should also be shouldered by university officials. In the best Washington tradition, these officials are only to happy to accept the money that Congress sends them -- yet eager to pass the buck at the first whiff of scandal.

The General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, has often been critical of the university's lab management. A major problem has been that ultimate responsibility for oversight was never clearly spelled out between the DOE and the university. With little accountability, neither side has much incentive to fix problems when they arise.

It's not surprising, then, that both university officials (who recently received a top-secret briefing from the lab managers) and DOE officials are now exploiting that ambiguity.

"The university was told that the federal government was handling security," one buck-passing official wrote in an internal university exchange shortly after espionage allegations began appearing in the press. "I think the time has come to reevaluate (that) relationship."

For his part, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson threatened to open the contract to competition (for the first time in 50 years) -- which he has since backed away from. University employees outnumber government officials by 60 to 1 at the labs, so changing partners would be a difficult undertaking.

Allegations of espionage at the labs have also reignited the long-running debate between openness and secrecy. Where university officials push for openness as a way of fostering a "campus-like" academic atmosphere, government bureaucrats have often pushed for greater secrecy.

Take, for example, the foreign visitors program. As early as 1980, the GAO reported that required background checks were being performed for fewer than 10 percent of the visitors from sensitive countries prior to their visit. As a result, visitors with questionable backgrounds -- including those with foreign intelligence services -- obtained access to the labs.

Between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s, the annual number of foreign visitors increased from about 3,800 to 6,400, while those from sensitive countries increased from about 500 to 1,825 per year.

In 1994, the University of California requested -- and the DOE granted -- an exemption to the background check requirements for the Los Alamos lab.

"Los Alamos allowed unescorted after-hours access to controlled areas to preserve what one official described as an open 'campus atmosphere,'" wrote the GAO. The FBI became so disgusted with the way the labs were handling security that they left.

With nobody clear on who was coming or going in the labs, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the labs became a one-stop shopping center for nuclear knowledge. DOE officials could have punished these lapses, but instead chose to boost the labs' year-end "management fees" from around $10 million to between $15 million and $20 million each.

The DOE provides the university a base of $2.5 billion annually to manage and operate three labs: Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley and Los Alamos. Approximately 60 percent of the budgets at Los Alamos and Livermore are devoted to weapons research. If the university lost the contract, hundreds of non-classified research projects could be left high and dry.

The contract is renegotiated every five years. Although a large portion of the faculty oppose the university's involvement in the labs, school officials worried about the bottom line continue the relationship.

"I think the whole question of the structure and management of the labs is a very fair question, and I think there's no doubt that we've opened the door to that debate," Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chair of the House Select Intelligence Committee, told our associate Ashley Baker. "I think it's a legitimate question to ask."

A long history of screw-ups makes the question especially legitimate. But if the past is any guide, fundamental reform will have to wait for another scandal.

-- Jack Anderson and Jan Moller are columnists for United Feature Syndicate.

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