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Energy chief calls for lab staff to be punished

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has recommended disciplinary action against a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and two other current or former officials there for failing to handle properly the espionage investigation at the lab, officials said Thursday.

Richardson acted in response to a critical new report by the department's inspector general that focused on the actions of 19 current or former officials at Los Alamos and at Energy Department headquarters who were involved in investigating evidence that China may have stolen nuclear secrets from the lab.

Based on the report's findings, Richardson recommended disciplinary action against Siegfried Hecker, director of Los Alamos from 1986-97, who still works there as a scientist. He also recommended to the current lab director, John Brown, that disciplinary action be taken against Terry Craig, until recently a counterintelligence team leader at the lab, and Robert Vrooman, former chief of counterintelligence.

Craig is still employed at the lab; Vrooman has retired but continues to work for a lab contractor.

Craig and Hecker did not return telephone calls; Vrooman could not be reached.

The form of discipline is up to Brown, but officials say Craig could be fired and Vrooman's relationship with the lab could be ended. It is unclear what Hecker faces.

The full report is classified and does not assign specific blame to any of the 19 people cited. But it does include "implied criticism" of the actions of former Energy Secretary Federico Pena and former Deputy Energy Secretary Elizabeth Moler for not being more aggressive in handling the investigation, officials familiar with the report said, according to the New York Times.

In the face of mounting criticism of the government's investigation into the espionage case, Richardson had vowed to take action against Energy Department officials who contributed to the debacle, but he decided to wait and base his actions on the inspector general's review.

"This report points out problems all around in the handling of this investigation," he said in an interview Thursday. "It shows that there was a lack of accountability, unclear communication and dysfunctional reporting relationships within the department. I'm frustrated that there are not clearer answers to the problems, but I'm confident that our report is as hard-hitting as we can get on this very sorry chapter of the performance of the United States government."

Brown said he would act soon on the recommendations, but cautioned: "I must ensure fairness in this process."

In March, a Los Alamos scientist, Wen Ho Lee, the FBI's chief suspect in the espionage investigation, was fired for security violations at the lab. He has not been charged with any crime, and he has denied that he spied for China. After he was fired, government investigators found that he had conducted unauthorized transfers of nuclear secrets from a classified computer system at Los Alamos into an unclassified network.

The U.S. attorney in New Mexico has been considering whether to seek an indictment against Lee for the mishandling of classified information based on the computer transfers. Lee has stated that he conducted those transfers to protect the data as part of his job at Los Alamos.

The inspector general's report focuses on the handling of the investigation of Lee, and particularly the failure of senior officials to restrict his access to classified material or to monitor his computer use long after he came under investigation.