Bill Richardson: Can a Meltdown Be Far Off?

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Bill Richardson has turned radioactive. Two days after a pair of wandering hard drives containing nuclear secrets turned up behind a copy machine in the bowels of Los Alamos' X Division, the energy secretary spent Sunday in a five-alarm splutter about who done it, why and where the buck ought to stop after this latest bit of security slapstick at the nation's preeminent nuclear laboratory. Republicans have a suggestion: "He should step down," Richard Shelby of Alabama told CBS' "Face the Nation," noting that he's asked Richardson to appear before a closed session of his Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Tuesday to explain himself. "He said, 'The buck stops with me; I'm in charge,'" added Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona. "You heard him here assuming full responsibility by blaming others. That's not the way to assume full responsibility."

Richardson, certainly, sounds more like an overwhelmed kindergarten teacher than a captain ready to go down with his ship, blaming his apparent lack of progress in plugging up security leaks to the often un-military "lab culture" of America's nuclear incubators. "What I should have said, what I didn't take into account, is that the lab culture needs to be changed," said Richardson. "I didn't take in the human element." TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson says there's something to that. "These places have a very academic feel to them. It's the way scientists are comfortable working; it's the way the best work gets done," he says. "But from a security standpoint, there's a vulnerability that comes with that."

None of that matters much now. Republicans convinced of the Clinton administration's inherent sloppiness in matters of national security are closing in. The headlines — behind a copy machine? — are getting more and more embarrassing. And Richardson, with the Democratic National Convention less than two months away, is seeing a mushroom cloud where his political future used to be. He used to be on Al Gore's short list for veep; now Bill Clinton, coming out of church, snubs reporters looking for a vote of confidence. Richardson's biggest mistake probably was agreeing to inherit a DOE nuke-lab system that seems designed to embarrass its administrators. And then there's the matter of the New Mexico brush fire that made this brand-X tomfoolery possible. As Richardson bumped into Democratic money man and convention emcee Terry McAuliffe in some news-show greenroom on Sunday, he might have wondered: Is it too late to have Bruce Babbitt take the fall?