LIVERMORE, Calif. — Energy Secretary Bill Richardson stood in a packed auditorium at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory here Friday and pleaded with the 400 or so Asian American and other employees to share their concerns and fears.
A Chinese American engineer and computer analyst jumped to her feet as soon as he stopped speaking.
"As someone who works with the weapons program, I feel like I'm a suspect at the lab until proven guilty," she complained. When she wanted to make a recent trip, she added, she was warned: "Dorothy, you know you're a suspect at the lab."
Another Asian American scientist rose and reached for the microphone. "We all feel it," he said grimly. "We all feel like suspects of espionage."
'The Worst Is Over'
So went a sometimes-tense welcome as Richardson made his first visit to a national nuclear weapons laboratory since the May 25 release of a scathing report by a special House investigative committee into Chinese espionage and theft of sensitive technology in the United States.
In an interview, Richardson said that he believes the political tidal wave caused by leaks of the House report over the last six months--complete with hearings by 14 congressional committees--now has crested. "The worst is over," he said, appearing relieved.
He said that he was reassured when the House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to boost security at the labs but defeated an attempt to ban foreign scientists from visiting or working on unclassified projects at them. Many of the amendments passed codify counterintelligence and other department-wide reforms that he already has instituted.
So Richardson has begun the next step: trying to battle what he called the "murmurs, whispers and jokes" that challenge the loyalty and patriotism of Asian American scientists at the labs.
He said he has appointed a new task force to investigate discrimination or related problems at the labs, including some of the complaints he heard Friday. He will make a similar trip to meet with Asian American employees at the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories in New Mexico this month.
"There are real morale problems," he said. "It's a real problem. This is a very volatile period. A lot of lab employees feel unappreciated. Their public image is now of spying."
So far, he said, one senior Chinese American scientist at the Los Alamos lab has quit, citing the discomfort of working in a suspicious atmosphere. Richardson said that he fears recruiting will suffer as a result of the tighter security, including regular polygraph tests for scientists in sensitive positions.
"I'm worried young scientists might find the labs excessively restrictive," he said.
Richardson said that the House report--authored by a special committee headed by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach)--is "very valuable," because the committee's investigation focused attention on security problems at the labs. But he questioned the report's most dramatic claims.
"Their conclusions about massive theft, wholesale loss of nuclear secrets, I believe is not definitive," he said. "The jury is still out."
The report concluded that Chinese spies at the labs had stolen secrets of every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal since the 1970s and may be continuing to do so.
"Spying is still going on?" Richardson demanded. "Show me. Where? Tell us where so we can stop it."
C. Bruce Tarter, director of the Livermore lab, said that none of the lab's 7,000 employees had quit because of suspicions created by the report but that he is concerned about morale. "We need to follow up and do better," he said.
The FBI is investigating whether Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born American scientist who worked at the Los Alamos lab, passed classified nuclear weapons to China after he downloaded a large number of warhead programs and data into an insecure office computer before 1995.
The improper transfer was discovered only after Lee was fired in March for separate security violations. He has not been charged but remains the focus of a major espionage inquiry.
Richardson began his visit to Livermore, which is 50 miles southeast of San Francisco, by celebrating one of the Energy Department's rare public successes of late: a $1.2-billion project that is on time and within its budget.
Nuclear Weapons Facility Christened
When the National Ignition Facility project is ready for testing in 2003, 192 high-power lasers simultaneously will fire at a bead-sized target in the middle of a massive steel golfball-like sphere to cause a miniature thermonuclear explosion. It is a key effort in the U.S. program to maintain the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons without formally testing them.
"A man-made star will be produced in this target chamber behind me," Richardson told several hundred employees before he inaugurated the project by smashing a bottle of ersatz champagne against the sphere.
A star of another sort sat in the front row: Dr. Edward Teller, 91, one of the core members of the Manhattan Project that produced America's first atom bomb in 1945.
Teller grabbed a reporter's arm to emphasize that he was a refugee from Hungary and that America stands to lose more than it would gain by closing its nuclear labs to foreign scientists.
"The importance of these leaks is questionable," he said. "But the damage that can be done by tightening secrecy too much may be very great."