An Energy Department official Monday accused his old supervisors of blocking security reforms that might have prevented espionage at research labs, but his charges were emphatically denied.
The accusations by Notra Trulock III, previously the DOE's chief of intelligence, were the first open testimony in a controversy that has resulted in the firing of a computer analyst at the department's Los Alamos, N.M., laboratory.
Trulock's chief target, Elizabeth Moler, DOE's former deputy secretary, adamantly denied the most serious charges made by Trulock during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
So contradictory was the testimony that one committee member asked both witnesses whether they would take lie detector tests, and both agreed.
The inquiry itself was challenged by Democrats, with Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico complaining that Republicans appeared to be "piling on" with repeated and overlapping hearings on the Clinton administration's handling of accusations of Chinese espionage.
"Over the last 10 years the department has consistently failed to implement reforms and recommendations necessary to both deter and to defeat" efforts by foreign powers to acquire U.S. classified information, said Trulock, who has previously testified only in closed meetings.
Trulock said he and his staff made attempts to brief Congress that were rebuffed, and had suggested changes in security practices that were sidetracked.
"Warnings were ignored, minimized and occasionally even ridiculed," he added, claiming that damage was done to national security.
In one case, Trulock said, he sent a memo to Moler, passing on a request he said he received from the House Intelligence Committee to give the panel a briefing.
Trulock produced the memo, which he said had been retrieved from Moler's office safe by her successor and returned to him without any action.
Under persistent questioning by Republican members, Moler insisted she had no recollection of either the memo or any request to brief the House panel. Moler said she had participated in numerous briefings on espionage issues.
The hearing continued late into the evening Monday.