June 21 , 2000
KWAME HOLMAN: Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee were joined by colleagues from the intelligence panel this morning for what largely turned out to be three hours of sharp, bipartisan criticism and questioning of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. It was Richardson's first testimony on Capitol Hill since the discovery last month that two computer disks containing nuclear weapons data were missing from his department's Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. They were recovered by the FBI on Friday behind a copying machine at the weapons facility. Armed services chairman John Warner set the tone for the hearing.
SEN. JOHN WARNER: Mr. Secretary, on June 23 of last year, you told this committee in this room, "the Secretary of Energy"-- I quote you-- "the Secretary of Energy must be accountable and must be responsible," for such security failures. Mr. Secretary, as I've said publicly, we are holding you accountable. These incidents happened on your watch. Like the captain of the ship, you must bear full accountability. The buck stops right there on your desk.
KWAME HOLMAN: The committee's ranking Democrat, Carl Levin of Michigan, noted there have been other instances of suspected security lapses at Los Alamos during Richardson's tenure.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: We are all very deeply troubled by what has taken place at Los Alamos. This episode and earlier episodes represent massive security failures. And our nation's nuclear weapon secrets are just too important to be handled casually, to be misplaced, and then for the evidence of their misplacement to be covered up and not disclosed to the proper officials at the Department of Energy.
KWAME HOLMAN: Richardson then began his testimony with an update on the FBI's investigation of what happened to the disks.
SECRETARY BILL RICHARDSON: I can tell you this morning that the FBI Has now determined that these are the authentic disk drives. Based upon the investigation by the FBI so far, which is, I said, ongoing. There is no evidence of espionage, nor is there evidence that the drives ever left the Los Alamos "X" division. In addition, the Bureau also confirms finding latent fingerprints at the crime scene and its vicinity, and on the external wrappings on the drives themselves. Now, investigators are carrying out their fingerprint analysis of the actual drives. I can also tell you that according to its latest findings, the FBI's working theory puts the loss of the drives at the tail end of March of this year, March 28. So this, I think, should do away with some reports about six months or whatever.
This time line will be further refined as the investigation continues. I can assure you and every member of this committee that personnel will be held accountable, and that disciplinary action will result from this incident. But I will not take action until I have all the facts before me. This could simply be a case of an individual who made a mistake and was terrified to come forward because they knew how seriously the Department now takes security. Ultimately, security also will be, and has to be, an individual responsibility, and must rely on the dedication, loyalty, and patriotism of our weapon scientists. And these people must be accountable like anybody else. Individuals are indeed fallible, and no amount of policy, no amount of legislation, will protect us from irresponsibility and human failings. We must remember that a successful security policy is one that allows you to uncover security violations. The worst security violations are the ones that go undetected.
KWAME HOLMAN: Richardson went on to list security improvements he's made at Los Alamos and other weapons labs in the wake of earlier security problems, and said he's proud of that record.
SECRETARY BILL RICHARDSON: Now, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I take a back seat to no one on issues of security. I'm outraged at what's taken place. There are no excuses. It's unacceptable, incomprehensible to me what happened. I will not rest until I know what happened, when, where, why, and by whom.
KWAME HOLMAN: Los Alamos laboratory director John Browne said when the recent New Mexico wildfires threatened the lab, the disks were discovered missing by members of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, or NEST.
JOHN BROWNE, Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory: On May 7, some of the NEST team members did request approval to go into the NEST vault to extract their NEST tool kit so that it would be placed in a safer location. That's a recorded entry into that vault, because they had to request approval from our emergency operations center from my deputy director for operations. The mistake that was made at that point when they saw-- the people that went in there saw that those hard drives were missing-- they didn't report that back to me or to my deputy. They were in communication with us, because the fire was going on. I have no understanding why they didn't do that. The laboratory was shut down for two weeks. We reopened the beginning of the week of May 22. And on May 24, my understanding is that the NEST team began to search again for these hard drives-- a second mistake-- they had an opportunity to tell me again when they came back to the laboratory that these hard drives were missing. They didn't tell me.
KWAME HOLMAN: Browne testified he wasn't informed the disks were missing until June 1, even though department rules require he be notified within eight hours of such an event.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: They violated that rule.
JOHN BROWNE: Correct.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: They don't have a reason.
JOHN BROWNE: No.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: They had no explanation.
JOHN BROWNE: They had no explanation.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: Are you then taking action against those employees that are responsible to report to you immediately but who failed to do so?
JOHN BROWNE: Those people have been moved outside of a keep- cleared area.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: Temporarily?
JOHN BROWNE: Well, until further notice.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: But that's not action. These are folks who violated your rules - now, you know that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Browne said he's constrained from acting because of the ongoing FBI Investigation. But most committee members focused their criticism on Secretary Richardson. Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia was particularly upset over Richardson's refusal to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD: I have to say, I am not calling for your resignation at this moment, but you have shown a supreme, a supreme contempt of the committees of this Congress. When you decided that you would go-- if the newspaper stories are correct-- when you decided that you would go before the Intelligence Committee when you were ready... you weren't ready yet that was a supreme act of callous arrogance, and I resent it. I think it's a rather sad story that you had a bright and brilliant career that you had never, that you would never again receive the support of the Senate of the United States for any office to which you might be appointed. It's beyond... you have squandered your treasure, and I am sorry.
SECRETARY BILL RICHARDSON: My administration -- this President has been good on security. He supported me all the way on these measures, and one of the comments, if I might, Senator, and I don't want to get into an argument with Senator Byrd. And I hope to earn Senator Byrd's trust again, maybe not. I disagree with what you said, Senator. I have great respect for you. I have great respect for the Congress. I cannot agree with your view that I hold that....
SPOKESMAN: The point has been made, Mr. Secretary.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, went further, publicly reiterating an earlier call for Richardson to resign. Shortly after noon, the Armed Services Committee adjourned, and Richardson went directly to a closed-door session with Shelby's committee.
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