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Jewish World Review June 21, 2000 /18 Sivan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The case of the not-so-missing secrets -- RUSHING TO CLOSE THE BARN DOOR after nuclear secrets turned up missing, the Clinton administration has done what any administration at a loss would do: pass the buck to a bipartisan blue-ribbon panel. Its assignment: Find out where those "now they're gone, now they're here'' nuclear secrets from a Los Alamos lab have been, and why and how and where. Nuclear codes don't just suddenly show up behind photocopiers, do they? Is this what's meant by cold fusion?

The case of the not-so-missing records brings to mind the mysterious disappearance and then reappearance a couple of years later of Hillary Clinton's billing records. These records, too, are explosive, but in the literal sense.

The whole, unfinished Case of the Not So Missing Secrets is a kind of combination Sherlock Holmes adventure, Murphy's Law and chapter out of "Alice in Wonderland.'' What treason once accomplished, this administration achieves through sheer, continued incompetence.

Having been appointed to determine where the vanishing hard drives are, the first thing the investigators find is that they've unvanished. What will appear next -- the vice president's missing e-mail? A rabbit popping out of a hat? The president's integrity? (Now that would be magic.)

Howard Baker, who's been rolled out since Watergate whenever the country needs somebody it can trust, will be the Republican half of the investigative team. Lee Hamilton, everybody's model of the long-winded congressman who means well, will represent the Democratic side of the equation.

Eventually the whole matter will be soundly deplored, no doubt about that. These crack investigators will get to the bottom of things, but -- this administration being this administration -- not to the top. Anybody who had anything to do with (un)security at the lab -- the university contractors, the bureaucrats on the scene, the previous administration, the Defense Department ... they'll all come in for criticism, probably deserved.

Bill Richardson, who's supposed to be in charge of the Department of Energy and therefore this weapons lab at Los Alamos, will doubtless take full responsibility -- in words. But he won't resign any more than Janet Reno did after taking responsibility for what happened at Waco. If people in this administration resigned merely because they'd disgraced themselves or proved unequal to the job, there'd be nobody left at the top.

The usual words are already being repeated. "I will continue to aggressively pursue this serious matter,'' Secretary Richardson said in a statement, doubtless the first of many. "There will be accountability and disciplinary actions regarding the Los Alamos incident.'' If you didn't know better, you'd think he was going to hold the secretary of energy responsible for his department.

The only thing all this tough talk really means is that once again, as with all those illegal campaign contributions, the higher-ups are going after the lower-downs. The AP says Secretary Richardson may now be off the short list of possible running mates for Al Gore. (The short list of possibles for vice president may be the longest list in the world.)

But despite one's respect for The Associated Press and its political acumen, it's doubtful that losing track of a few nuclear secrets is going to keep anybody from being promoted in this administration.

Richard Bryan, the Democratic senator from Nevada, is apparently a stickler for details, like a nuclear code or two. He bemoans what he calls "a culture of indifference about security.''

Item: When Congress finally established a new security agency as a check on the Energy Department, with its loose way of guarding the country's nuclear secrets, or rather not guarding them, whom did Bill Clinton choose to head it?

Why, the head of the Energy Department -- the selfsame Bill Richardson. We guess he was supposed to check on himself and then report back to his other self. Or maybe he just wasn't himself on those days when he headed the other agency, although who he was, we can't say. Lewis Carroll probably could. His wonderland had nothing on Washington.

And now the No. 2 man at the Central Intelligence Agency, an Air Force general, has been confirmed to head the new nuclear security agency, and maybe that will clear things up. Once his crack investigators start looking into the matter, they'll doubtless find it's all the work of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who operated under the alias of Lewis Carroll. Or maybe of Sir A. Conan Doyle.

This whole affair of the reappearing codes reminds us of the theft of the Bruce-Partington Plans in November 1895, when a dense yellow fog covered the whole of London (Put some more coals on the fire, Dr. Watson) and poor Arthur Cadogan West ... but I digress. Which may be the only way to see this farce of errors in perspective.

It occurs that, if not for the forest fire that threatened the lab at Los Alamos and sent somebody scurrying to secure the nuclear codes, nobody might know even now that the codes were ever missing. It took three weeks before the disappearance of the hard drives was even reported. And scores of employees and maybe just passers-by had access to the codes.

Now the secrets have materialized behind a photocopier in what is described as a Secure Area. Which would be enough to arouse the suspicions of even an Inspector Clouseau, since the place was supposed to have been thoroughly searched at least twice before and no hard drives showed up then.

Whether the codes have been tampered with has yet to be determined. No doubt, the final report of the investigating committee will be long (Lee Hamilton is, after all, the co-chairman) but will it change anything? Or will we all just be confused on a much higher level?

What most needs changing, one suspects, isn't the system but the attitude of those nominally in charge of it. It's a careless attitude -- and not just about nuclear secrets. Senator Bryan could have been talking about a lot more than nuclear security when he referred to a culture of indifference.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate