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Report Faults Energy Dept. on Security

Weapons: Congressional investigators say their warnings were ignored. But officials insist they are making efforts to remedy safety concerns.

April 20, 1999| From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Energy Department ignored many warnings about security risks at nuclear weapons labs over decades as dangers "languished for years without resolution or repercussions" against responsible officials, congressional investigators conclude in a scathing report.

With the labs now under heightened scrutiny because of allegations that China stole nuclear secrets, the General Accounting Office documented the warnings it has issued in 32 reports over the last 19 years, citing nearly 50 recommendations it claimed were mostly neglected.

"Managers and contractors have shown a lack of attention and/or priority to security matters," according to testimony prepared for a House Commerce Committee hearing today and obtained by Associated Press.

Victor S. Rezendes, director of the GAO division that studies energy and scientific issues, said the Energy Department recently brought in the FBI to assist with counterintelligence.

FBI agents had been brought in a decade ago for similar help but left in the early 1990s "because of resistance within DOE to implementing the measures the FBI staff believed necessary to improve security," reported the GAO, Congress' investigative arm.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said Monday the department is taking "very aggressive steps" to fix the problems cited by the GAO, including:

* Increasing the counterintelligence budget from $2.6 million to $39.2 million since 1995.

* Appointing a CIA and FBI veteran, Ed Curran, as director of counterintelligence.

* Placing seasoned counterintelligence professionals at nuclear weapons labs.

* Instituting a new lie detector program.

* Revamping the foreign visitors' program.

"Since taking over as secretary of Energy [in August 1998], nothing has been more important to me than ensuring that the security and counterintelligence capabilities of the department are top-notch," Richardson said.

Rezendes said the most serious problems that were not addressed by the department over the last two decades were:

* Ineffective controls over foreign visitors to the most sensitive Energy Department facilities.

* Weaknesses in efforts to control and protect classified and sensitive information. In one instance, a facility could not account for 10,000 classified documents.

* Lack of physical security such as fences, and security personnel who, through the years, have proved unable to demonstrate basic skills, such as arresting intruders or using handcuffs.

* Backlogs in security clearances.

* A failure to track and control nuclear materials, including material sent overseas.

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