Congress' $289 billion defense authorization bill is extremely popular, not only in Washington but among the troops and at the grass-roots, too. The reason is because it gives a much-needed hefty pay boost to military personnel and provides new spending for readiness, long neglected by this administration.
Although the White House hasn't officially supported the measure, there was every reason to believe President Clinton would sign on -- that is until Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, whining about a provision he doesn't like, says he may recommend a veto.
What's particularly dismaying is that Richardson's objection is about one of the bill's best features. It calls for putting security of the nation's nuclear weapons labs -- which have for years been raided by Red China -- under a powerful new agency over which the energy secretary would have no control.
Richardson claims it's unnecessary. He says he has gotten rid of those responsible for sloppy security and has put new procedures in place to ensure there won't be a repeat.
However, National Review reports that two of the top Energy officials forced out were good guys, i.e., critics of Energy's security laxness and supporters of the type of independent agency Richardson's fighting.
Clearly, he resents his loss of power. But if energy secretaries were good at protecting weapons secrets from the Communists, there'd be no need for a new agency.
The physical safety of nuclear lab workers and surrounding communities is critically important as is research and development and, when necessary, manufacturing nuclear weapons.
All these things the Energy Department has done with varying degrees of success, but not so with securing the labs from foreign espionage.
This is why -- even though this newspaper usually opposes new layers of bureaucracy -- an independent agency, with security as its top priority, is needed. It's the best means to combat more espionage coups by Beijing or other potential enemies.
Richardson, despite a minor trimming of his power, would be foolish to urge the president to veto a widely popular defense appropriations bill. But the president would be even more foolish to take his recommendation.
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