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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Wall Street Journal December 13, 2004

U.S. Officials May Seek Leak Probe

Disclosures About Program To Develop Spy Satellites Could Prompt Investigation

By David S. Cloud and John R. Wilke

WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence officials are likely to seek a criminal investigation into disclosures about a top-secret and increasingly expensive spy-satellite program that several lawmakers have sought unsuccessfully to kill.

Bush administration officials were angered by leaks about the program, which current and former officials said is developing a new generation of satellites that are intended to orbit undetected and has been plagued by cost overruns. One person with knowledge of the program said the cost estimate had recently increased to more than $9 billion, making it one of the largest single programs in the intelligence budget. The program is managed by the National Reconnaissance Office and is still years away from deployment, the person said.

A leak-inquiry request could come as soon as this week from senior intelligence officials and would go to the Justice Department, which would have to rule on whether there are grounds for opening a criminal probe, officials said. Last year after a similar request from intelligence officials, the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into the leaking of the identity of Valerie Plame as an undercover agent of the Central Intelligence Agency. That probe is still under way.

Details about the satellite program spilled into the open last week after Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.) and Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) spoke on the Senate floor calling it an expensive and unnecessary intelligence acquisition program. None of the lawmakers identified it as a satellite program nor gave other details and Mr. Rockefeller said in a statement that his remarks had been cleared by Senate Intelligence Committee security staff.

A report in the Washington Post following the floor speeches, however, identified the program as a satellite system, and it and some other news stories alleged that there are shortcomings in the program, such as that it is useful only in daylight and in good weather. Such details, while sketchy, suggest that people with knowledge of the program may have shared information on it.

Other intelligence committee members joined in the criticism yesterday as details of the program were publicly acknowledged. In an interview on ABC News, Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) called the project "a colossal waste of money" and said that the program, "which has been protected by its top-secret classification, is one where I think we have wasted billions of dollars."

He said that he hoped that no one on the intelligence committee had leaked the information, but added, "eventually some information will come out." This, he said, "points to a weakness of the whole process...[that] it takes a leak to understand that billions of taxpayers' dollars are being wasted that could be spent to make America safer."

One official said the Bush administration didn't know who was responsible for those leaks, but complained that, while Mr. Rockefeller may have informed the committee staff, he hadn't cleared his statement with intelligence agencies involved. Much of the anger among intelligence officials and some senior Bush administration officials is aimed at the two Democratic lawmakers, both of whom are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "At a minimum, what they did was irresponsible," said an official yesterday.

A Democratic Senate aide said the lawmakers "have an oversight responsibility and when they feel money is being appropriated on bad policy they have the right and the responsibility to speak. We believe it was done in a responsible way." In a statement, Sen. Rockefeller's office had said his reference to the program "was fully vetted and approved by security officials."

One administration official said yesterday that discussions were under way about whether to ask Senate Republicans to consider removing Messrs. Rockefeller and Wyden from the committee.

The Senate Intelligence Committee sought to eliminate the satellite program this year, but the House and Senate appropriations committees, which control how the roughly $40 billion annual intelligence budget is apportioned, funded the program anyway and the move was supported by the House Intelligence Committee, which was headed by Porter Goss until he resigned in September to become CIA director.

The controversy over the program illustrates how, despite soaring intelligence spending and widespread calls for spending more on recruiting more human spies overseas, the majority of the intelligence budget is still spent on expensive technical systems, many of which survive because of the support they enjoy with key lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee. It also shows how hard it is for Congress, with multiple committees overseeing intelligence, to come to agreement on priorities.

John Pike, an analyst at Globalsecurity.org, a defense and intelligence research group, said he had suspected that work was being conducted on a new generation of stealth satellites, the last of which went into orbit in the late 1990s, he said. Stealth satellites, relying on technology that minimizes their radar profile to make them look like space debris, operate so that, in theory, a potential adversary won't know they are overhead.

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