Congress has put the Pentagon on notice that a new generation of spy satellites--the most expensive intelligence program in the nation's history--will be scaled back next year unless money can be found for computers and communications equipment needed to process the vast stream of data from space.
The new satellites, estimated to cost at least $4.5 billion over the next 10 years, are designed to produce high-resolution photographs and targeting information with fewer gaps in coverage than the current generation has.
But Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and other proponents of the new satellites warned this week that they could become "the biggest white elephant in U.S. intelligence history" unless Congress and the White House also agree to pay for a processing and dissemination system, which would cost an estimated $1 billion to $2.8 billion.
"There is, effectively, no money budgeted now to task the satellites, process the digital data they collect, exploit the information," Lewis said. "In English: It does not do any good to take pictures that no one will ever see."
His remarks came in debate minutes before the House passed the fiscal 2000 intelligence authorization conference report on Tuesday. The Senate is expected to give its approval next week to the same bill, which directs the National Reconnaissance Office--the super-secret intelligence agency that builds and operates spy satellites--to scale back its new fleet unless money is appropriated for the processing system in 2001.
A senior intelligence official responded that the president's proposed budget for fiscal 2001 would include money for the processing system. But the official said she was "sympathetic" to congressional concerns about where the funds would come from. "We don't have a billion dollars lying around the intelligence community," she said.
The capabilities of the new optical and radar satellites remain highly classified. But John Pike, an intelligence expert at the private Federation of American Scientists, said he believed the optical satellites would circle the globe at an altitude of about 1,000 miles, twice that of current satellites, enabling them to stay over targets for half an hour instead of just five minutes.
One Capitol Hill source who tracks intelligence issues said the new satellites would be able to provide a military commander in a tent in Saudi Arabia with computerized pictures of a spot 20 miles away in Iraq one hour after they were taken--if the processing system is funded.
In addition to the language on satellites, House and Senate conferees also added a provision to the bill making it a crime to identify publicly, by name, any retired covert CIA or Defense Department employees within five years after they have left government service. The secrecy of the names of covert operatives currently working for the CIA or Pentagon already is protected by law.