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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The New York Times June 15, 2005

Shift in Spying Money to Agents From Satellites Is Sought

By Scott Shane

WASHINGTON, June 14 - Arguing that satellites are consuming too much of the intelligence budget, the House Intelligence Committee is proposing a major shift of financing away from costly space-based spying to bolster the ranks of agents and analysts.

While details and dollar amounts of the cuts to satellite programs are classified, the committee said in a report that the spending recommendations it is sending to the House floor would "significantly reposition funding from technical programs to human intelligence and analysis."

The report, attached to the intelligence reauthorization bill, said the administration's budget request is "weighted far too heavily toward expensive technical systems." The committee called for eliminating "redundant or unjustified technical collection systems" while increasing investment in human intelligence.

The committee said it was proposing more spending on training and infrastructure to support spies, as well as increasing efforts to recruit and train linguists skilled in Arabic, Chinese, Pashto, Urdu and other languages.

"We're out of balance," Representative Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said in an interview. "Technical intelligence is very expensive and it can be very, very helpful. But we felt we had overlapping and duplicative technical programs, and we believe we're coming up short on humint," or human intelligence.

In a speech on Tuesday, Mr. Hoekstra said some of the programs the committee has marked for "termination" have been plagued with problems for years. Officials from the National Reconnaissance Office, which develops and launches spy satellites, have admitted that the programs have been poorly managed, with flaws in contracting and engineering, he said, but they have told him, " 'Don't worry, Pete, when we get it up in space, it's going to work.' Are you kidding me?"

The scale and pace of the proposed cuts to satellite programs drew a muted protest from the Democratic minority on the Intelligence Committee, led by Representative Jane Harman of California.

"We support the efforts to confront hard choices in technical programs," said a dissenting report signed by eight of the committee's nine Democrats. "However, we think it is unwise to make sudden, drastic cuts to programs absent a more thorough technical review."

Moving too quickly, the Democrats said, could "cause a gap in our capabilities and diminish the industrial base so critical to fielding the technology against current and future threats."

John Pike, an intelligence analyst and the director of GlobalSecurity.org, a private research group, said the reference to "industrial base" was a reminder of the huge stakes in the budget debate for the companies that build satellites and their payloads. "It means they're trying to save some contractor's program from getting cut," Mr. Pike said.

Ms. Harman said her Southern California district is "the intelligence satellite capital of the universe." She said the government has an interest in ensuring the survival of the three companies that make such satellites - the Boeing Company, the Northrop Grumman Corporation and the Lockheed Martin Corporation - because competition among them produces innovation and lower prices.

The Intelligence Committee's proposal appears to reflect the thinking of the presidential commission on intelligence regarding unconventional weapons, which said in its March 31 report that "cost overruns in satellite systems tend to suck resources from the rest of the intelligence budget."

The presidential commission, headed by Charles S. Robb, a former Democratic governor and senator, and Laurence H. Silberman, a senior federal judge, said that "increasingly, there are air-breathing alternatives to satellite surveillance."

The commission listed "tough choices" on satellite systems, which cost billions of dollars and must be planned years in advance of deployment, as one of the major strategic decisions facing the director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, who took office in April. It said Mr. Negroponte should tackle the issue "early in his tenure."

The debate over the proper balance between satellites, which can take pictures or eavesdrop on communications, and traditional human spying dates to the 1960's. But since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many intelligence experts have argued that recruiting agents to infiltrate terrorist organizations is of greater value in preventing attacks than anything satellites can do.

"I think there's been a real imbalance," said John F. Lehman, a former Navy secretary and a member of the commission on the Sept. 11 attacks. "Certainly leading up to 9/11 and to a certain extent afterward, there have been the forces of contractors and jobs behind the big technical collection systems."

He said the growth of satellite systems was also driven by the revelation during the 1970's and 80's of abuses and other unsavory actions on the part of Central Intelligence Agency case officers. "There was a feeling that satellites allowed us to get out of the dirty, messy business of spying," Mr. Lehman said.

Jeffrey T. Richelson, who has written several books on intelligence collection, said the committee's report was too vague to determine what programs could face reductions. He said several programs, including one called "Future Imagery Architecture," as well as programs using space-based radar and infrared, were possibilities.

Dr. Richelson said that while spies and satellites are often discussed as alternatives, they work best together. In assessing nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, he said, a satellite picture can raise suspicions of illicit activity and then help guide an agent on the ground to have a closer look.



Copyright 2005, The New York Times Company