Los Alamos Spy Sanctions Displease Richardson

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

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The Los Alamos National Laboratory has punished two former security officials for alleged mistakes in investigating Chinese espionage--but did not discipline the lab's former director, as requested by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. The moves, announced last Friday by the University of California (UC), which runs the lab for the Department of Energy (DOE), close another chapter in the long-running spy scandal, which focuses on allegations that former Los Alamos physicist Wen Ho Lee gave bomb secrets to Chinese operatives.

Lee, who was fired in March, has denied the spying allegations and has not been charged with a crime. Nonetheless, last month Richardson asked UC officials to punish the three Los Alamos personnel, saying that a classified report showed they had "failed to give necessary attention to counterintelligence and security" (Science, 20 August, p. 1193). Although Richardson didn't name names, DOE officials confirmed that the report fingered metallurgist Sigfried Hecker, who directed Los Alamos from 1986 to 1997 and still works there as a scientist; Robert Vrooman, a retired chief of counterintelligence who now works at the lab for an outside contractor; and Terry Craig, another former counterintelligence officer now employed in a different position at the lab. Whereas Hecker has not commented on the charges, Vrooman and Craig have denied culpability, saying Richardson should have pointed fingers at staff in DOE's Washington headquarters instead.

Now, UC officials and Los Alamos director John Browne have acted on Richardson's request after hearing from a three-member panel that reviewed the charges. Craig was given a formal letter of reprimand and a 5-year pay freeze and put on probation, and Vrooman was barred from consulting for the lab for 5 years, effectively ousting him from his current post. Hecker, in contrast, will receive "a letter from [UC president Richard C. Atkinson] regarding his responsibilities at Los Alamos during the security investigation." In each case, Atkinson said, the actions "were more severe than those the panel proposed."

The moves were not, however, to Richardson's liking. "Secretary Richardson would have preferred the disciplinary actions be stronger," says DOE press secretary Brooke Anderson. But, she adds, "it's time to move on."

Posted in Policy, Scientific Community