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More US labs may curb visits by foreigners

20 May 1999 (See Nature Volume 399 page 189)

[WASHINGTON] Fermilab, Brookhaven and the Department of Energy's other non-weapons laboratories could be caught up in the powerful backlash against foreign visitors to government laboratories which has accompanied this year's allegations of Chinese spying at the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico.

George Nethercutt (Republican, Washington) plans to amend an Energy Department funding bill to restrict visits of scientists from sensitive countries - including India, China and Russia - to all the Department of Energy's laboratories, including civilian ones that hold no nuclear secrets.

The amendment would not ban such visits outright, but would require the Secretary of Energy to apply for special permission for visits involving a long list of prescribed technologies. The requirement would be lifted only after extensive new security and counter-intelligence measures had been implemented at the laboratories.

James Sensenbrenner (Republican, Wisconsin), the chair of the Science Committee in the House of Representatives, said he would support the Nethercutt amendment. Asked why civilian laboratories should be included in the proposed rules, Sensenbrenner said: "It should apply department-wide so that they [the administration] will deal with the security issues department-wide."

Laboratories hit by the proposed regulations would include Fermilab, Brookhaven, Oak Ridge, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, the Pacific Northwest laboratory and most of the other major physics facilities in the United States.

The Nethercutt amendment, which was due to be considered by the Science Committee this week, was watered down from earlier versions that would have blocked most visitors from sensitive countries altogether. But the level of support for the amendment suggests that the civilian laboratories can expect, at the very least, to implement tighter security in the wake of the Los Alamos allegations.

Scientific leaders were attempting to defend scientific collaboration with foreigners in the face of what political operatives describe as strong public support for tough measures to clamp down on foreign visitors and tighten security at US government laboratories. Both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Board are preparing public statements in defence of the foreign visitors programme at the laboratories.


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