DOE Backtracks on Lab Security Review

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has quietly shelved a plan to have a former intelligence chief lead a security check of its foreign scientist exchange program. Instead, another panel named by President Bill Clinton will review DOE's security measures, including those designed to prevent visiting scientists from penetrating classified areas and stealing secrets.

On 17 March, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson announced that John Deutch, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency from 1995 to 1997, would help make sure that visiting foreign scientists weren't stealing secrets from DOE's 20 laboratories, including the three that specialize on designing nuclear warheads (ScienceNow, 18 March). The move came a day after Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), who leads a committee investigating allegations of Chinese spying at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1980s, called for temporarily shutting down the exchange program due to security concerns.

But the next day, Deutch's panel was apparently trumped by Clinton's decision to ask former Republican Senator Warren Rudman (R-New Hampshire) to lead a broader review. Deutch, a former DOE official and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, will continue to advise the department informally, sources say.

The switch came, according to one knowledgeable source, because "there were getting to be too many reviews." Besides Rudman's panel, a CIA committee is also looking into DOE's alleged espionage troubles. Meanwhile, Richardson has announced that his agency will be tightening up on background checks on the thousands of foreign scientists who visit U.S. government labs each year, most of whom work on unclassified projects unrelated to weapons development.

Posted in Scientific Community