The scandal over indicted nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee has created a potentially damaging rift between Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the University of California over what the Democratic senator considers the university system’s appalling attitude toward protecting nuclear secrets at its weapons labs, according to newly released documents.
The free-flowing exchange of information promoted by top university officials--including UC President Richard C. Atkinson--"really does a great disservice to our nuclear secrets,” Feinstein charged at a closed-door Senate hearing in June from which excerpts were released last week.
The sharp criticism of UC administrators came from an unlikely source: a home state senator who is known as a zealous defender of California’s interests and has kept a low profile on allegations of espionage at the UC-run nuclear labs. As a result, her broadside could portend long-term political problems for the state’s university system--not only in its operation of two nuclear labs but also in its appeal for broader financial support.
Indeed, uncertainty over whether Feinstein will back the university system’s continued operation of the labs is “the $64,000 question,” acknowledged UC Assistant Vice President Scott Sudduth, the system’s point man in Washington.
For half a century, the University of California has run two weapons laboratories for the federal government--the Lawrence Livermore lab near San Francisco and the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico.
But the Department of Energy, stung by controversy over China’s purported theft of highly sensitive nuclear warhead technology, is already threatening to put the multimillion-dollar lab work out to bid for the first time in 2002. And Feinstein’s support is considered crucial to UC’s efforts to hold onto the job.
“She potentially plays a very important role,” Sudduth said. “When the contract comes up for renewal, there’s no question that having the support of the [congressional] delegation--and particularly the senior senator--will be very critical.”
Feinstein said in an interview that although she has seen signs of tightened security at the labs, she has not made up her mind whether the UC system should continue to operate them.
“I think it’s a fair and open question. I certainly have reached no conclusion. But I think it’s appropriate to evaluate it,” she said. “I’m looking at it from a perspective of a secure nuclear program. That’s my first priority.”
Publicly, Feinstein has said little about the growing controversy over lab security. But her closed-door remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee make it clear that she privately holds deep-seated concerns about the culture and discipline of the labs--and that she voiced her concerns to UC officials in an occasionally volatile exchange.
Feinstein questioned why Republican leaders of the Judiciary Committee released an edited transcript of the hearing. “I went to the hearing in the belief that it was a classified hearing and one could just talk openly. . . . I was trying to ask some probing questions in a classified setting,” she said.
The clash centers in part on how much academic freedom lab scientists should be given to discuss non-classified elements of their work with colleagues and students around the world, at the labs and at overseas conferences. Critics allege that lax security allowed Lee, the fired Los Alamos scientist, to transfer numerous classified documents into an unsecure system. Lee, who denies any wrongdoing, was charged earlier this month with mishandling classified data and was denied bail earlier this week.
UC officials said that they are aggressively stepping up security--so much so that some employees worry that new safeguards will have a chilling effect on research and spur an exodus of lab scientists to the private sector.
At the Senate hearing, with Atty. Gen. Janet Reno testifying on the Lee affair, Feinstein said that academic freedom seems to have jeopardized national security.
She questioned whether the “culture of interaction” at the national labs, encouraging employees to participate in symposiums and share information with non-lab colleagues, is “an appropriate framework for America’s essentially deepest and darkest nuclear secrets.”
Feinstein said that when she raised those concerns in a conversation with the UC president and several regents, she found their reaction “kind of appalling.”
The UC officials, she said, “were upset that I challenged this, and they said in response to my challenges: ‘Well, if you don’t have this kind of free flow and openness in an academic setting . . . you’re not going to be able to attract a good quality of people because of the salary levels.’
“And I have become very much of the view that if you have this kind of academic culture and academic discipline, that it really does a great disservice to our nuclear secrets,” she said at the hearing.
Reno told Feinstein that she too was bothered by the free flow of information at the national labs and had ordered a review--still pending--to deal with that and related issues.
Feinstein said that the Justice Department should review whether the labs are best run by the university system. And she suggested that lab employees with security clearances should be required to submit to phone wiretapping based on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing. Currently, the government must meet a higher standard of “probable cause.”
Feinstein said that she has yet to hear back from Reno.
UC’s Sudduth said that in recent meetings with Feinstein, UC officials have tried to do a better job of letting her know about stepped-up security measures. But although some speculate that friction over lab security could spill over into Feinstein’s support on other UC issues, Sudduth said he does not fear that happening.
He cited Feinstein’s aggressive and successful efforts during recent federal budget talks to restore Medicare-related cutbacks, which could have cost state medical and graduate schools in California more than $15 million a year.