March 9, 1999
JIM LEHRER: The China story, and the controversy over security at America's top nuclear weapons lab. A scientist was fired there Monday. He's under suspicion for passing secrets to China. We go to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who did the firing, and to the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, what exactly did the scientist do to be fired?
BILL RICHARDSON, Secretary of Energy: He did three things, Jim. First, he violated security procedures at the lab by having unauthorized contacts with sensitive countries. He violated handling of classified material, and he failed to inform the lab of a number of security breaches that he committed. On the basis of those violations, I felt incumbent upon firing him in addition to suspicions we had about his involvement with this incident. In addition to that, he failed a polygraph test. So I felt I had sufficient grounds to dismiss him.
JIM LEHRER: Now, were these things that he allegedly did, did they happen recently? Or some of these things that happened in the 1980's? When did this happen in other words?
BILL RICHARDSON: Jim, there's a lot of law enforcement issues that I have to be careful of. But we found some of these violations to have happened in the 80's in 1995. And the FBI very vigorously and I believe effectively with our own people at Los Alamos have been building up an analysis of what has been lost, have been building up a case against this individual to be absolutely sure that this was the one that we felt was suspicious. And what was developed, Jim, was then a requirement that President Clinton instituted in April of 1998 to set up a vigorous counterintelligency effort at the national labs. That has happened.
JIM LEHRER: Now, is he going to be charged with a crime?
BILL RICHARDSON: That's an FBI issue, Jim, a law enforcement matter. There are a lot of legal issues involved. But you will recall that in our past spy cases where the FBI has had prime responsibility, there is a time lag between a dismissal, Aldrich Ames, Nicholson, Howard and attempted arrests. So we are now at a stage that a case is being developed. But this is really an FBI issue. I took my responsibilities as my employee to fire him because I felt there were sufficient grounds to terminate him. But the FBI had advised me to hold on, not fire him -- I had wanted to do this for some time -- until they developed a strong case, a strong rationale. They interviewed him over the weekend. This individual was totally non-cooperative, he was defiant. I felt on that basis and for the reasons we outlined that I should fire him.
JIM LEHRER: He's an American citizen?
BILL RICHARDSON: Yes, he's a Taiwanese-born American citizen.
JIM LEHRER: Is he in custody or in any way restrained in his movements?
BILL RICHARDSON: No, he's not, Jim. He's been terminated from his position but he is not in custody. He is in New Mexico; he is in Los Alamos.
JIM LEHRER: Is there any evidence he's part of a ring of some kind, a larger group? Or was he acting alone?
BILL RICHARDSON: We think he's acting alone. We think that this is the only incident. But that doesn't mean that we don't remain vigilant. And what we have done since I came on board is we've instituted polygraphs for anybody that has sensitive access; we've brought the visitor's program of foreign scientists very, very tight security procedures. We've doubled the counterintelligence budget for the Department. We have counterintelligence people at each of the labs. We have had background checks on every scientist that comes in from sensitive countries. They all are accompanied, any foreign scientist that comes in. But the purpose, Jim, of having foreign scientists at our labs -- and they are from many friendly companies, too - is we want to teach them about nuclear nonproliferation, about export controls, about dual-use technology, about safety of warheads. It's in our interest to have countries from -- represented like Russia and China and others learn restraint about nuclear weapons. And our labs are the best at this. That doesn't mean you have weak security procedures. But we don't anymore. We have tightened substantially, even to the point where I think we're the only agency besides CIA that is having polygraphs on employees.
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JIM LEHRER: All right, Senator Shelby, what do you think of the way Secretary Richardson and others in the Clinton administration have handled this matter?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY, Chairman, Senate Intelligence Committee: Well, let's talk about Secretary Richardson. I believe that what he's doing and what he has just done is a step in the right direction. I also believe that lab security has been very lax over the years, probably an academic atmosphere, and perhaps an academic attitude. Now, there's nothing bad about that except the weapon labs, such as Los Alamos, such as Livermore and others, house and will continue to house our best-kept secrets -- some of them in the world. I think we have to tighten up security there. We've got to do it, and we've got to make sure that it is implemented. Secretary Richardson talked about what they were doing, and I commend him for this. But on the Intelligence Committee, which we have oversight jurisdiction of our national security and our agencies and our intelligent gathering agencies, we want to make sure that this doesn't happen in the future. There's always a chance that this could be a tip of an iceberg, that this is not an isolated case. I hope it is. But we don't know that yet. And that's why I've called for hearings regarding this incident and others like it at the labs next Wednesday in the Senate -- on the Senate Intelligence Committee. And we'll start off with Secretary Richardson and FBI Director Louis Freeh and go from there because this is important. It's important to the American people. When we lose, if all this is true, if we lose weapons knowledge to someone who is way behind us, they catch up fast. There's a quantum leap. The American taxpayers pay for it. Our children could pay for it dearly. National security should not be for rent, for sale or anything to look the other way. And so I'm going to, as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, going to work with Secretary Richardson and others to make sure that our lab security is tightened up. It has to be. There's no excuse not for it to be. But it has been lax in the past.
JIM LEHRER: And why do you say that? I mean, anything beyond this one incident? Have there been other incidents that you know about?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, I can't comment on everything here.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: We'll just comment on the firing yesterday and what Secretary Richardson said. But I think there's been an atmosphere and not just in the Clinton administration. We have to go back in context. But it took a while to fire this man, and it took a while to implement policies. The main thing is we've got to continue to do this. We've got to be vigilant. I don't believe we have been vigilant enough at our weapons labs.
JIM LEHRER: Do you believe, Senator Shelby - I mean, is there any question in your mind this operation involving this one man, if it only involved one man, directly involved also the Government of China?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, I wouldn't go that far except at this point, and not on a TV program, except to say that we've got to protect ourselves against nations in the world that would acquire any way they could our technology that could do damage to our national security, our ascendancy in the world. We have to protect that ought all costs.
JIM LEHRER: Secretary Richardson, how would you answer the same question? Is the Chinese Government involved in this one man's operations?
BILL RICHARDSON: We have no evidence yet, Jim, that -- how serious this breach was. It is serious. We do think that it involves espionage.
JIM LEHRER: Like what? What kind of espionage?
BILL RICHARDSON: Well, it's a law enforcement issue, but we did nail this guy because we felt he was passing on unauthorized information. Now, I don't want to get beyond that. It did involve China. But let me also say that we don't know yet how serious the damage was. There's varying assessments, CIA, Energy Department, about how serious the breach was. We're trying to find that out. We will find it out soon. We're going to cooperate fully with Senator Shelby. I do agree with one his comments. In the past lab security should have been tougher. There's no question about it -- in the 80's, perhaps in the 90's. But, Jim, these labs do great work. They're taking a hit now but they develop nuclear weapons, they've got our best scientists, they guard our weapons, they make sure we can have a strong stewardship program without testing. They do outstanding work. This is one incident, a serious one. But I don't want to diminish the very important national security role of our weapons labs.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Shelby, what is your assessment as to why the security guy -- you said it was an academic atmosphere. But why was there no oversight in the prior administrations, as well as this one, if you think there wasn't, or even in the Congress?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, I'm sure there's been oversight but there hasn't been enough. I don't believe, Jim, that security in our labs has been the priority that it should have been perhaps in past years. And I think part of it is a lot of the openness has come about since the demise of the Soviet Union -- perhaps even before this. And as Secretary Richardson said, there is a big exchange around the world of scientists and scientific information. But we've got to guard very diligently against leaking or letting it be stolen from our labs that would do damage to our national security. This is a big issue. And I believe after the total assessment is made there, you're going to see, I predict, a big loss of technology.
JIM LEHRER: I was going to ask you about that. I know you can't tell us what it is, and I wouldn't even ask you to but I mean, you say a big loss, there's no question in your mind that this incident involved something of high magnitude to the United States?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I do. I do believe that. And as time goes on, I believe that that will get in the public domain.
JIM LEHRER: Do you know something that Secretary Richardson doesn't know or -
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, I don't know. I might. I might not. But that's not just my interpretation.
BILL RICHARDSON: Jim, I think the answer to that is we don't know yet. After this assessment that the CIA is doing soon about how serious the damage was, we will know that answer. It was serious, it's unconscionable that it happened. We don't tolerate espionage from anybody, the Chinese, this is very serious. But the full extent should come out after proper declassification. But I think Senator Shelby's inquest is a correct one. We're going to cooperate fully. He's been bipartisan. We're going to testify along with Director Freeh. And I think it's important that we resolve this issue in a bipartisan manner because this is national security. There's plenty of blame to go around. The point is, Jim, we have taken some very strong steps to ensure that this doesn't happen again. And I don't think it can anymore with what we have in store. But we're willing to listen to your recommendations.
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Jim, I don't believe there's any substitute for lack of diligence, no matter who the administration is, whether it's the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, the Reagan administration, and so forth. Our national security should be, must be, above political parties, political considerations.
JIM LEHRER: And finally, Senator Shelby, this man has been fired. You're going to hold hearings next week. What about a criminal prosecution if, in fact, there was espionage?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: That ultimately will be up to the FBI and the Justice Department. But I do know that sometimes it takes a long time to crack an espionage case, to bring it to trial. They're very difficult. They're very tough.
JIM LEHRER: So it doesn't trouble you that this man has not been arrested.
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: No, not yet. But I would hope he would be in the future if they've got enough evidence.
JIM LEHRER: All right, gentlemen, thank you both very much.
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Thank you.