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Senate Endorses Nuclear Security Reforms

May 28, 1999|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Reacting to a House panel's report on Chinese espionage, the Senate on Thursday endorsed a bipartisan package of reforms that aims to beef up security at U.S. weapon laboratories and keep Congress better informed of future breakdowns in national security.

The Senate initiatives, proposed by Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and tacked on to a $289-billion defense spending bill, were approved unanimously and are considered an initial step to be followed by more far-reaching measures in the months ahead.

But partisan strains in the House and Senate foreshadowed intense struggles to come over the best way to respond to an espionage scandal that goes back as far as the Ronald Reagan administration but has landed firmly in the lap of President Clinton.

The report, released Tuesday, detailed how lax security at U.S. weapon labs allegedly helped the Chinese government obtain nuclear secrets. Headed by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), the select House panel recommended aggressive action across the government to fight foreign espionage.

One of the Senate measures would put the FBI, instead of the Civil Service Commission, in charge of conducting background checks on Department of Energy laboratory employees. Also, the CIA director would be required to report to Congress on efforts of foreign governments to acquire sensitive U.S. technology. The White House, under the Senate action, would be compelled to notify Congress whenever the administration investigates violations of U.S. export control laws.

A more drastic Senate fix did not win support. Senate Democrats blocked a GOP proposal to reorganize the Department of Energy so nuclear matters would be supervised by a career bureaucrat who would have significant clout and report to the Energy secretary. The Clinton administration threatened to veto the entire spending package if it contained the proposal.

Lott and other Republican senators condemned the Democrats, who argued that such a sweeping reorganization should not be rushed.

"I'm very disappointed," Lott said. "This does not bode well for us working together to deal with our national security."

The partisan sniping was even more intense in the House, where Republican leaders adjourned without considering reform measures put forward by Rep. Norman D. Dicks of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Cox committee. An angry Dicks accused Republicans of playing politics with the China issue.

"I am very disappointed that the Republican leadership has chosen to take a partisan approach to implementing our report," Dicks said. His proposals included giving the Department of Energy's counterintelligence chief direct access to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and expressing support for changes already implemented by Richardson.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), denying that partisan politics was at work, explained that additional time would lead to a more thoughtful response.

At the same time, however, some Republican lawmakers were demanding immediate action on another front, calling for the resignation of National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger.

"Our most sensitive nuclear and military technology has been stolen by the communist Chinese, and no one in this administration is being held responsible for the breach," said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who joined 81 other Republicans in sending a letter to Clinton. One renegade Democrat, James A. Traficant Jr. of Ohio, also said Berger should go.

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