A small firestorm followed, with at least one radio talk show host and callers to Rockefeller's office charging that he had divulged classified information. On Thursday, spokeswoman Wendi Morigi issued what she called a clarification. "Any assertion about classified intelligence programs based on Senator Rockefeller's statement is wholly speculative," the statement said. It said Rockefeller's floor statement had been "fully vetted and approved by security officials."
That statement illustrates the constraints faced by members of Congress as they work to adjust or terminate even multibillion-dollar programs that are hidden from public scrutiny and debate. There have been other hints of problems in satellite programs in the last year.
Several months ago, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the intelligence committee, made a cryptic reference to the value of expensive satellite programs during testimony on her intelligence reform proposal.
"I can't go into this, but when we look at satellites, one or the other of us has questions," she told her colleagues. "I'm concerned these are tens-of-billions-of-dollar items and we sure as heck better know what we're doing."
Stealth technology has been used to cloak military aircraft such as the F-117A fighter and the B-2 bomber.
When radar searches for a stealth craft, it records a signature that is much smaller than its size should indicate. Thus a stealth plane or satellite could appear to radar analysts as airborne debris.
Advanced nations routinely patrol the skies with radar and other equipment to detect spy planes, satellites and other sensors.
About 95 percent of spycraft are detected by other nations, experts say. But "even France and Russia would have a hard time figuring out what they were tracking" if they were to pick up the image of a stealth satellite, said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, an expert on space imagery.
The idea behind a stealth satellite is "so the evildoers wouldn't know we are looking at them," Pike said. "It's just a fundamental principle of operational security that you know when the other guy's satellites are going to be overhead and you plan accordingly."
But, Pike said, "the cover and deception going on today is more systematic and continual. It's not the 'duck and cover' of the Soviet era."
The existence of the maiden stealth satellite launched under the Misty program 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 that first craft was launched from the space shuttle Atlantis on March 1, 1990.
Amateur space trackers in England and Canada were able to detect it at points after that, Richelson reported.
A second Misty satellite was launched nearly a decade later and is in operation, sources said.
Circumstantial evidence of that satellite's existence was outlined in the April issue of a Russian space magazine, Novosti Kosmonavtiki. According to a translation for The Washington Post, the article suggested that a satellite launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in 1999 may be the second-generation Misty craft and noted that the satellite was put into orbit along with "a large number of debris," a likely deception method.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.