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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

New York Times December 12, 2004

Spy plan may deploy secret satellite system

By Douglas Jehl

WASHINGTON -- A highly classified intelligence program that the Senate intelligence committee has tried unsuccessfully to kill is a new $9.5 billion spy satellite system that could take photographs only in daylight hours and in clear weather, current and former government officials say. The cost of the system, now the single biggest item in the intelligence budget, and doubts about its usefulness have spurred a secret congressional battle, which first came to light last week, over the future of a system whose existence has not yet been officially disclosed.

In public remarks, senators opposed to the program have described it only as an enormously expensive classified intelligence acquisition program without specifically describing it as a satellite system. Outside experts said Thursday that it was almost certainly a new spy satellite program that would duplicate existing reconnaissance capabilities. The Washington Post first reported the total cost and precise nature of the program on Saturday, saying that it was for a new generation of spy satellites being built by the National Reconnaissance Office that are designed to orbit undetected.

The officials would not say how many satellites were planned as part of the program, but they said the system included the satellites themselves, their launchers and the technology necessary to transmit the images they collected.

Some current and former government officials expressed concern that the disclosure of the existence of the highly classified program might be harmful to national security.

They said congressional Republicans were questioning whether the public hints first dropped by four Senate Democrats opposed to the program, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, might have represented a violation of congressional rules. Rockefeller's office said earlier in the week that the senator had consulted with security officials before making a carefully worded statement on the Senate floor that described the classified program as unnecessary and too expensive, but did not identify it further.

But other officials said the depth and intensity of opposition to the program, expressed behind closed doors for more than two years by Senate Republicans as well as Democrats, had finally tipped the balance between secrecy and candor in a way that has led to an extraordinary disclosure.

Among the champions of the program, officials said, has been Porter J. Goss, the new director of central intelligence, who served until this summer as the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee.

But critics, including Democrats and Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee, have questioned whether any new satellite system could really evade detection by American adversaries and whether its capabilities would improve on those already in existence or in development.

"These satellites would be irrelevant to current threats, and this money could be much better spent on the kind of human intelligence to penetrate closed regimes and terrorist networks," said a former government official with direct knowledge of the program. "There are already so many satellites in orbit that our adversaries already assume that just about anything done in plain sight is watched, so it's hard to believe a new satellite, even a stealthy one, could make much of a difference."

A Central Intelligence Agency spokesman declined to comment about the existence of any classified satellite program, as did the White House.

A spokeswoman for Rockefeller, who is the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, also declined comment. A compromise between the Senate and House that was approved in both chambers last week authorized spending on the program for another year. Money for the program had earlier been allocated as part of a defense appropriations bill that reflected strong support for the system among members of the House and Senate Appropriations committee.

But Rockefeller and other Democrats on the Senate intelligence panel, including Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, said in calling attention to the issue that they would seek much more aggressively to scuttle the program next year.

The idea that the disputed program might be a stealth satellite program was proposed in an interview on Thursday by John Pike, a satellite expert who heads Globalsecurity.org, a defense and intelligence database. The existence of the first stealth satellite, launched under a program known as Misty, was first reported by Jeffrey T. Richelson in his 2001 book, "The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology." Richelson said the first such satellite was launched from the space shuttle Atlantis in March 1990.

A second Misty satellite is believed to have been launched in the late 1990s and is still in operation, current and government officials said.

The program now in dispute would represent the third generation of the stealth satellite program, and is being built primarily by the Lockheed Martin Corp., the officials said. The company has refused to comment on its involvement in any classified programs.

To date, the cost of the program has been in the neighborhood of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, the officials said. But they said that the overall price tag had recently soared, from initial estimates of about $5 billion to the new $9.5 billion figure, and that annual outlays would increase sharply in coming years if the program is kept alive.

"Right now, it's not too late to stop this program, before billions of dollars are spent on something that may never get off the ground and may add nothing to our security," the former government official said.

In his public comments, Wyden did not mention Lockheed, but he expressed concern about the rapidly escalating cost of the satellite program and the way in which the contractor was selected.

The mere existence of the National Reconnaissance Office was not publicly acknowledged until the early 1990s, and it remains the most secretive among American intelligence agencies. Its main responsibility is the building and launching of spy satellites to collect images and intercept communications for National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.

There are many kinds of reconnaissance satellites, and some of them have the capability, through infrared and radar technology, to acquire images at night and in cloudy weather. Officials have suggested that new technologies may also be able to detect the presence of objects underground. The sharpest images come from photo reconnaissance, but those satellites can generally operate successfully only during the day and in sunny weather.

Officials critical of the new stealth satellite program now in dispute said it would have only photo reconnaissance capability, though with high resolution. The secret nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran are widely believed to be developed underground or otherwise out of view of photo reconnaissance satellites.

Copyright 2004 New York Times