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Secretary Richardson Testifies at Senate Committee Hearing on Los Alamos

Aired June 21, 2000 - 10:39 a.m. ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Up now to Capitol Hill, Bill Richardson now taking questions from Senator Warner.


SEN. JOHN WARNER (R-VA), SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Now, Mr. Secretary, last year Congress passed a law, the president signed it -- that is passed a bill, the president signed it. Can you now state to this committee what your intention here to enforce that law to the full measure?

BILL RICHARDSON, ENERGY SECRETARY: Senator, I will fully enforce that law, the creation of the semi-autonomous agency. And, Senator, I will say to you that I have abided by that law. It passed late last year. It mandated its operational start March the 1st. We did that at the Department of Energy. In January, I appointed a special panel to head up the NNSA. We nominated Admiral -- General Gordon on March the 2nd. The White House officially nominated him May the 4th.

WARNER: Those are procedural steps. Have you actually -- and you designated yourself as the acting head, am I not correct?

RICHARDSON: Right now, General Gordon is the undersecretary.

WARNER: I think he has to take an oath of office, doesn't he?

RICHARDSON: Yes, he will be sworn in on Monday.

WARNER: Now wait a minute, you're just -- he has to take an oath of office. He's not...

RICHARDSON: That's right, that's right, Mr. Chairman.

WARNER: Let's get that clear.

RICHARDSON: I will fully abide by the semi-autonomous agency strictures and guidelines. In fact, Mr. Chairman, General Gordon and I have been in touch recently. I spoke to him yesterday. His first charge is to deal with security at the labs. He's going to do a top to bottom review of the three labs on the...

WARNER: And he is going to have the freedom that Congress intended to operate that organization, is that correct? RICHARDSON: Yes, he will have the full freedom and he will have my full support.

WARNER: That is what I wished.

RICHARDSON: And let me just add something, Mr. Chairman.

WARNER: All right.

RICHARDSON: On the issue of double hatting, on the issue of double hatting, which has been...

WARNER: Let's describe exactly what that is, because many following this hearing might not understand it. You give your definition and if I feel necessary, I will give my definition.

RICHARDSON: All right. I will ask the deputy secretary...

WARNER: I'd rather have you give the answer.

RICHARDSON: All right, OK. Mr. Chairman, there were a number of positions that we felt, such as Mr. Curran's position, such as General Habiger, security and counterintelligence, that it was important because this new administration was in transition, it was just starting operationally March the 1st, that I double hat employees like these two individuals and a score of others -- I don't recall the exact number, it's about 15 -- 19 -- that would have dual responsibilities.

The reason being is that security and counterintelligence problems at the Department of Energy are throughout the complex, throughout the 120,000 people and numerous facilities, and as the new administration started of the semi- autonomous agency I think it made sense, so that we wouldn't lost any continuity...

WARNER: Made sense, but I'm holding up a paragraph from the law, let me read it to you. Section 3213 of the national Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2000. Quote: "Each officer or employee of the administration shall not" -- I repeat -- "shall not be responsible to or subject to the authority, direction or control of any other officer, employee or agent of the Department of Energy," end quote.

To me, that double-hatting procedure is a circumvention of this situation.

Now, let me just finish. To strengthen this and remove any doubt whatsoever about the law passed last year, we have in the bill now pending on the floor of the Senate, for this committee, language which I think tightens it beyond any doubt that we will stop dual hatting.

The question I have to ask you: Will you support that language?

RICHARDSON: Yes. And, Mr. Chairman, also, in connection with General Gordon, I told him yesterday that we would -- I would support him in whatever he wanted to do on the double-hatting issue, I would support him on...

WARNER: He's going to do what the law says.

RICHARDSON: Right. Well, I just reinforced that.

WARNER: All right. OK. That's all I want to know. I want to allow a minute here for my colleague. But I think, if I understand your answers, you're going to fully enforce the existing law, the changes which are in the present defense authorization bill you will support, and indeed I think I will work with members of the Senate to try and put this language in other pieces of legislation, because at the moment the defense authorization bill is hung up on a procedural problem.

RICHARDSON: Mr. Chairman, I would also ask your support, we have sent in some budget amendments for General Gordon's immediate staff...

WARNER: We will take those into consideration.

RICHARDSON: And we need that.

WARNER: All right. Understand that.

Now I'd like to yield a minute or two of my time to Senator Domenici.

SEN. PETE DOMENICI (R), NEW MEXICO: We're aware of that request and it's an appropriated item and we intend to take care of it immediately.

I want to talk to the senators who are here for two minutes and not the secretary.

First of all, I want to tell you all, I've done a lot of things with this administration in this area, including some very, very formidable activities with reference to Russia, that I happened to either institute or become part of, and as a matter of policy I support some very serious things that they are doing with reference to plutonium disposition and the like.

Now, like none of you, I have been representing Los Alamos as a senator and Sandia for 28 years. I've been very privileged the last five, I'm chairman of their appropriations committee. And I want to tell you, and I want to tell the secretary, there is no management reason for the nuclear weapons deterrent and nonproliferation to be in the Department of Energy. It was put there when we created ERDA and we threw everything together.

It has been in a department where many times the hierarchy were anti-nuclear weapons. I know that. It is currently difficult to get things done because the bureaucracy is rampant, and it runs this away, across the department. So you can't even pull out a block for nuclear weaponry and say it stands on its own, it is enmeshed in a dysfunctional way with all the rules and regulations that are established for this very dysfunctional department. Now, Mr. Secretary, I am very proud of what you said today. I will pull the transcript and I will reread it because the best thing you could do to leave a legacy for America on nuclear weapons -- which you so beautifully developed here in terms of its mission, in terms of who does it -- the best thing you could do is say, I have created the semi-autonomous agency run by John Gordon, no dual hatting, he will run it, subject only to me, the secretary.

We need to try that for three or four years. It may not even work because it is so difficult to run.

The other recommendation was of the PFIAB, the president's most august body, with five fantastic people on it, they even recommended that we take it out of the department and put it in a free-standing entity. And they created an option: If you would like, leave it in the department, but create a nuclear -- this NNSA as we call it -- and let it be managed by one person, only subject to NEPA.

Now, frankly, I hope we will leave here bound together, Republicans and Democrats, saying it is too important -- it is too important to argue over the early ideas of this secretary with reference to the autonomy of this agency. Those are done. It is so bleak out there that we better try something brand new that could be enforced where people are responsible and accountable, not subject to what has been described over and over again as a dysfunctional agency.

Now that's why I came today.

HEMMER: You are listening to Senator Pete Domenici, his home state is New Mexico. Before that, you heard the chairman, Senator John Warner at the time getting rather feisty and somewhat contentious with Bill Richardson.

Let's bring in Bob Franken again and try to work through the jargon, a lot of acronyms being thrown about right here, Bob.

And it's my understanding is Pete Domenici even on the committee or is he like a guest person today.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He is a guest. He, of course, is a senator from the state of New Mexico, as he pointed out. And of course, we heard NNSA and NEPAA. We heard any number of other acronyms, I will spare you the extended names. But here is what this really is a discussion about. They created this so-called semi- autonomous agency in legislation last year. The Energy Department, which many people consider an extremely entrenched bureaucracy, has resisted this agency almost from the beginning, at least people are complaining here, that there has been a real foot-dragging of the administration, Republicans charge, to put it into effect.

The committee chairman was saying today, we want this into effect, that there is just a series of embarrassing problems that is occurring at the nuclear labs, and you heard the energy secretary promise that he would put these into effect. As a matter of fact, he says, he felt that within the usual bureaucratic constraints, he was in fact putting them into effect. So that's what this discussion has been all about. It is process, it can be eye-glazing on occasion, but it is an important aspect of the way that the federal government is dealing with security, and of course, underlying all this is that there is a tremendous clash, almost has been since the beginning, of the establishment of the Los Alamos lab, for instance, between the scientists who resist security, and the usual military people and the type who want very strict security when you are dealing with nuclear power. There are some books that have been written about that, one in which one of the scientists there talked about ways that he would thwart security on occasion and almost face jail time for some of the pranks that he pulled. So this is an ongoing problem. It's a real battle of cultures, and, as we're seeing, the battle goes on.

HEMMER: Indeed it does, and apparently, a lot of senators are going to blow off some steam during this session as well. But you heard Senator Domenici say, together, if Republicans and Democrats can emerge from this meeting together on a united front, is that possible after today's meeting, though?

FRANKEN: Well, I suspect that you will see that they are going to come up with some policies that they can agree on. But let's not carry this bipartisanship too far because there is an undercurrent here. Let us not forget that Bill Richardson is considered one of the front-runners -- or had been considered one of front-runners to be number two on an Al Gore ticket, and the Republicans are gleefully pounding on him now, trying to discredit him, and perhaps many people think that might take him out of the running.

HEMMER: All right, thanks for the clarification, Bob. Again, we'll put you on standby there on Capitol Hill.



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