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Jewish World Review June 23, 2000 / 20 Sivan, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Consumer Reports

AlGore and security? Maybe 'social,' certainly not defense -- WHAT PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE Al Gore lacks in warmth and charisma, he hoped to make up for in experience. And as a vice president running against a governor, Gore was banking on having a clear edge over George W. Bush on national security issues. But the campaign isn't turning out quite as Gore hoped. He now trails Bush by 10 points in the most recent Los Angeles Times poll -- and national security may prove Gore's Achilles heel come November.

The latest fiasco at Los Alamos National Laboratories is only the most recent in a series of appalling breaches in national security to plague this administration. Officials revealed last week that two computer hard drives were missing from the most sensitive vaults at the Los Alamos facility for three weeks before being reported to the Energy Department, which oversees the labs. The FBI is now investigating the disappearance and even more mysterious reappearance of the disk drives, which contain information critical to disarming U.S., Chinese, Russian and French bombs in case of nuclear accident or terrorist attack.

No one in authority knows for sure what happened to these hard disks in the period between April 7, when they were last inventoried in their proper place inside laptops in the supposedly secure X-Division vault, and May 7, when two Los Alamos employees discovered them missing. As yet, there is no explanation as to why it took Los Alamos officials some three weeks more to report the incident to Washington. Nor does anyone seem to know how the two devices found their way behind a copy machine, where they were discovered last Friday in a room that had previously been searched.

So far, the administration's response has been muted at best. Of course, Energy Department Secretary Bill Richardson, an oft-talked about vice presidential candidate for the Gore ticket, has "accepted full responsibility." In this administration that translates to: "Hey man, it happens."

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took similar 'responsibility' for the disappearance of a laptop computer containing highly classified date in January, for the discovery last December of listening devices planted by Russian spies within the State Department building itself, and for the disappearance two years ago of a sheaf of top-secret documents from the Secretary's own office suite.

Then, there was the embarrassing case of former Clinton-Gore administration CIA director John Deutch, who just happened to take top-secret data with him when he left his post in December 1996. The material was stored without proper controls on two home computers, including a laptop. CIA officials discovered the existence of the improper material on Deutch's computers in 1997, but failed to report it to the FBI, as required by law. A handful of CIA officials received reprimands, and Deutch lost his security clearance, small penalty for the severity of the security breach involved, which compromised the most highly secret CIA information on 'sources and methods.'

And remember the earlier spy case at Los Alamos, which broke barely one year ago? Scientist Wen Ho Lee now awaits trial on 59 counts of mishandling classified information, charges that were the best the government could come up with since the Justice Department bungled the espionage case against Lee.

Los Alamos officials first suspected Lee of passing on nuclear secrets to China in 1995, and began monitoring his activities. But in 1997, the Clinton-Gore Justice Department rejected an FBI request for court approval of wiretaps on Lee's phones and covert monitoring of his computer use. This, despite suspicions that Lee may have passed on design information about the W-88, America's most sophisticated nuclear warhead.

The pattern here is clear. Those highest up in the Clinton-Gore administration don't give a hoot about national security. It's a cultural thing, really. A lot of these folks came out of the Vietnam War protest era when many of their cohorts considered it perfectly acceptable to steal classified material, to hail the publication of the "Pentagon Papers" as a 'civic duty,' and to burn draft documents. Now, they're in charge of the very institutions they used to loathe. Are we surprised they don't treat the information in their care with quite the deference and respect it deserves?

If Al Gore wanted to salvage his reputation as someone who can be trusted to protect our national security, he'd be leading the drumbeat for administration heads to roll. Instead, he hopes to change the subject this week from national security to social security. Perhaps he'd better drop the word security from his vocabulary altogether.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate