Jeffrey LewisSpySats: Sometimes It's Just a Cigar

Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) recently refused to support the intelligence bill due to his “strenuous objection—shared by many in our committee—to a particular major funding acquisition program that I believe is totally unjustified and very wasteful and dangerous to national security.” He went on to say:

But the Senate has voted for the past 2 years to terminate the program of which I speak, only to be overruled in the appropriations conference. The intelligence authorization conference report that I expect to be before the Senate later today fully authorizes funding for this unjustified and stunningly expensive acquisition.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) piled on, noting that:

There are a number of other programs in existence and in development whose capabilities can match those envisioned for this program at far less cost and technological risk. Like almost all other acquisition programs of its size, initial budget estimates have drastically underestimated the true costs of this acquisition and independent cost estimates have shown that this program will exceed its proposed budgets by enormous amounts of money. The Senate Intelligence Committee has also in the past expressed its concern about how this program was to be awarded to the prime contractor.

AP picked up Rockefeller’s “dangerous” comment, repeating the speculation of “outside intelligence experts, who said the program was almost certainly a spy satellite system, perhaps with technology to destroy potential attackers.” (Later editions of the AP story are much restrained.) MSNBC ran with the idea, noting that “the highly classified endeavor is a top secret satellite that would, or maybe already can, intercept and shut down other countries’ spy satellites.”

Let me be on record as saying that some of the more alarmist folks are going to look like assess tomorrow or the day after.

My best guess is that Rockefeller and Wyden were merely referring the National Reconnaissance Office’s Future Imagery Architecture, which was to “completely restructure U.S. satellite imagery capabilities by including new design imaging satellites as well as new processing, exploitation and dissemination capabilities.”

It’s a big waste of money, but not a space weapon. [Well, I was wrong about it being FIA, but right about it no being a weapon. It was a stealth satellite named Misty]

After Boeing won what the Los Angeles Times called “the largest intelligence-related contract ever” (it might “dwarf the Manhattan Project” the Times noted), the FIA was beset with cost over-runs, delays and congressional opposition. The sordid history of the FIA was well documented by Jeffrey Richelson, who wrote a great article called “The Satellite Gap” in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

If any intelligence program was going to be singled out for ritual humiliation, it would be FIA—a program so dreadful that the normally garrulous Pete Teets (left) becomes unable to say any word other than “classified” when asked when we’ll see some results.

If you are interested in the many problems that NRO has experienced over the past few years, a flurry of articles occurred a little over a year ago. Robert J. Kohler, a retired senior CIA officer who spent almost 20 years supporting NRO programs, wrote an unclassified article in the CIA’s Studies of Intelligence journal that was critical of NRO. Dennis Fitzgerald, Deputy Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, responded. This debate was nicely summarized by Doug Pasternak writing in US News and World Report.