House, Senate lawmakers put faith in hands of new nuclear agency chief

House, Senate lawmakers put faith in hands of new nuclear agency chief

Sen. Pete Domenici warns Energy to improve its security or to expect more heat from Congress.

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

Lawmakers are putting their faith in Air Force Gen. John A. Gordon's ability to protect the nation's nuclear secrets.

Gordon last week took the helm of the Energy Department's controversial National Nuclear Security Administration as House and Senate members lauded his abilities.

The general 'is an effective leader and manager with a lot of credibility,' said Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), a former Air Force officer with a background in nuclear cruise missiles. She worked with Gordon on the National Security Council staff.

The Senate confirmed Gordon for the post on June 14 as lawmakers grilled Energy officials on the latest security breach at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico [GCN, June 19, Page 66].

As head of NNSA, Gordon will oversee physical and computer security at nuclear weapons facilities that store vast amounts of sensitive data.

Retired Gen. Eugene A Habiger, Energy's security czar, said the department likely will look at reclassifying such data, which is similar to that contained on two hard drives that recently disappeared, then mysteriously turned up again at the Los Alamos facility.

Lawmakers had accused Energy Secretary Bill Richardson of urging supporters in the Senate to delay Gordon's nomination in an attempt to gain political advantage in the design and implementation of the new agency.

Richardson previously refused to reconsider his organizational plan for NNSA, under which he had assigned Energy officials double duties, giving them mirror tasks in the new agency [GCN, April 24, Page 1].

Gordon, former deputy director of the CIA, sent thank-you notes to a number of senators and acknowledged that much work remains to secure the nation's nuclear secrets, said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).

Under pointed questioning last month by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Richardson promised to support Gordon in his bid to secure nuclear data and to let the agency operate as a quasi-independent organization as Congress intended.

Dueling over jobs

Richardson said he assigned dual roles to help the fledgling agency to its feet. Richardson previously said he was legally correct in his implementation of NNSA and had made no provisions to rescind the appointments.

Lawmakers created NNSA, in part, as a response to a report by the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board that revealed that lab security suffered from muddled internal bureaucracy and a weak chain of command [GCN, Feb. 21, Page 1].

'You elected a course of action not to bring the National Nuclear Security Administration into function,' Warner told Richardson in his opening statement, alleging that the Energy secretary attempted to circumvent Congress.

Warner has sponsored legislation to prevent Richardson or future Energy secretaries from interfering with NNSA operations.

One clause would prohibit the alteration, consolidation or discontinuation of any component of NNSA. The other would deny pay to any official holding dual positions within the agency and another Energy office.

Domenici and others agreed to support the legislation.

Richardson previously informed committee members that language in an earlier department regulation gave him authority to reorganize NNSA and assign Energy officials dual roles, Domenici said. The Warner legislation would negate those regulations, he said.

Support for Gordon at recent Armed Services Committee hearings was bipartisan.

'He is more than capable of making changes in the new agency,' Wilson said, acknowledging that Gordon's work will take time. 'He doesn't have a magic wand, and everyone understands that.'

Gordon's resume appears as if it were created with NNSA in mind, Domenici said.

'If we had written the requirements for the job, then went looking for the person to fill it, we wouldn't have found a closer match,' he said.

Domenici said the creation of NNSA is the final wake-up call to Energy. If security does not improve, Congress will take further action, he said.

'There are clouds on the horizon,' he said, alluding to calls by some on the Armed Services Committee to either create a new agency to oversee nuclear weapons complexes or to give the Defense Department authority over the weapons labs.

Opponents of the security crackdown maintain that the additional attention will make it harder for weapons labs to attract qualified, talented scientists.

Wilson disagreed.

'If we show respect for who they are and what they do and for their commitment, we will attract great scientists,' she said. 'We need to clean up and clear up our policies and procedures and let them get back to the work that they do.'

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