Will Senators Recall Bill Richardson's Scandalous Cabinet Record?

New Mexico Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson will go before the U.S. Senate in coming weeks as Barack Obama’s nominee for secretary of Commerce. Will Democrats in that chamber remember his performance in 1999 and 2000 as Energy secretary, when secrets disappeared from nuclear laboratories, and one Democratic senator promised to oppose Richardson for any future nomination?

Richardson inarguably has an impressive resume — a fact he played up during his bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. He has served as a member of Congress, and President Bill Clinton used him as an ad hoc diplomat before appointing him U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. From there, Clinton moved Richardson to the position of Energy secretary. In 2002, Richardson was elected governor of New Mexico, and he was reelected in 2006. Earlier this month, Obama announced he would nominate Richardson as Commerce secretary, a position — like UN ambassador and Energy secretary — requiring Senate confirmation.

With Obama’s high popularity, the Democrats’ 16-seat majority, and Richardson’s being Hispanic, his confirmation odds are excellent. This is in stark contrast to the situation at the beginning of the decade.

In the January of 1999, the U.S. House Select Committee on Intelligence published the “U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China” — known as the “Cox Report” — which found that China had stolen and still was stealing nuclear weapons secrets from the U.S. The committee reported that “the primary focus of this long-term, ongoing PRC intelligence collection effort has been on … national weapons laboratories.” The national laboratories were under the jurisdiction of Richardson’s Energy Department.

That summer, Congress grilled Richardson over the security in the labs, and Richardson vouched to improve the situation. On May 20, 1999, Richardson told the House Science Committee, “I would just ask you to let me run my department. Give me a year to see if I’ve performed. Call me up again, and I will appear again to see whether I have initiated the reforms that I said I had.”

A week later, USA Today quoted him as saying, “Americans can be reassured our nation’s nuclear secrets are today safe and secure.” Then in early 2000, two computer hard drives containing information on U.S. nuclear weapons disappeared from Los Alamos.

With the hard drives still missing, and invited to speak before the Senate Intelligence Committee on nuclear security on June 14, 2000, Richardson instead attended a campaign function for Vice President Al Gore at the National Press Club. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Richard Shelby (R.-Ala.), left an empty seat at the witness table with Richardson’s nameplate to highlight his absence. “Perhaps if the secretary would spend more time ensuring the safety of our nation’s nuclear treasures,” Shelby said, “and less time trying to get the Vice President elected President, we would not be here today.” At the time, Richardson was one of the names being mentioned as Al Gore’s potential running mate.

Shelby and Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.) attacked Richardson that summer, but the most noteworthy attacks came from within his own party.

In 1999, as Richardson was resisting a bill to place an independent officer in charge of nuclear laboratory security, begging Congress to “let me run my department,” Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey (Neb.) interrupted Richardson and scolded him for his egotism and possessiveness: “We’re a nation of laws. You referred to this agency as yours several times.… You are the secretary of Energy for the moment and, you know, at some point you’re not secretary of Energy and somebody else is.”

Sen. Robert Byrd (D.-W.Va.), however, was the harshest. After skipping the June 14 hearing, Richardson did appear before the Intelligence Committee, at which point Byrd castigated him: “You will never again receive the support of the Senate of the United States for any office to which you might be appointed,” said Byrd. “It’s gone. You’ve squandered your treasure, and I’m sorry.”