WASHINGTON — In the view of U.S. spy services, the next potential national security threat from Russia may not come from a nefarious cyberweapon or intelligence gleaned from the files of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor now in Moscow.
Instead, this menace may come in the form of a seemingly innocuous dome-topped antenna perched atop an electronics-packed building surrounded by a security fence somewhere in the United States.
In recent months, the CIA and the Pentagon have been quietly waging a bureaucratic turf war to stop the State Department from allowing Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, to build about half a dozen of these structures, known as monitor stations, on U.S. soil, several U.S. officials said.
They fear that these structures could help Russia spy on the United States and improve the precision of Russian weaponry, the officials said. These monitor stations, the Russians contend, would significantly improve the accuracy and reliability of Moscow’s version of the Global Positioning System, the U.S. satellite network that steers guided missiles to their targets and thirsty smartphone users to the nearest Starbucks.
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“They don’t want to be reliant on the American system and believe that their systems, like GPS, will spawn other industries and applications,” said a former senior official in the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology. “They feel as though they are losing a technological edge to us in an important market. Look at everything GPS has done on things like your phone and the movement of planes and ships.”
The Russian effort is part of a larger global race by several countries — including China and European Union nations — to perfect their own global positioning systems and challenge the dominance of the American GPS.
For the State Department, permitting Russia to build the stations would help mend the Obama administration’s relationship with the government of President Vladimir Putin, now at a nadir because of Moscow’s granting asylum to Snowden and its backing of President Bashar Assad of Syria.
But the CIA and other U.S. spy agencies, as well as the Pentagon, suspect that the monitor stations would give the Russians a foothold on U.S. territory that would sharpen the accuracy of Moscow’s satellite-steered weapons. The stations, they believe, could also give the Russians an opening to snoop on the United States within its borders.
The squabble is serious enough that administration officials have delayed a final decision until the Russians provide more information and until the U.S. agencies sort out their differences, State Department and White House officials said.
Russia’s efforts have also stirred concerns on Capitol Hill, where members of the intelligence and armed forces committees view Moscow’s global positioning network — known as GLONASS, for Global Navigation Satellite System — with deep suspicion and are demanding answers from the Obama administration.
“I would like to understand why the United States would be interested in enabling a GPS competitor, like Russian GLONASS, when the world’s reliance on GPS is a clear advantage to the United States on multiple levels,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the chairman of a House Armed Services subcommittee.
Rogers last week asked the Pentagon to provide an assessment of the proposal’s impact on national security. The request was made in a letter sent to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper Jr.
The monitor stations have been a high priority of Putin for several years as a means to improve GLONASS not only to benefit the Russian military and commercial business sectors but also to compete globally with GPS.
This year, Russia positioned a station in Brazil, and agreements with Spain, Indonesia and Australia are expected soon, according to Russian news reports. The United States has stations around the world, but none in Russia.
Russian and U.S. negotiators last met April 25 to weigh “general requirements for possible GLONASS monitoring stations in U.S. territory and the scope of planned future discussions,” said a State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, who said no final decision had been made.
Harf and other administration officials declined to provide additional information. The CIA declined to comment.
The Russian government offered few details about the program. In a statement, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, Yevgeniy Khorishko, said that the stations were deployed “only to ensure calibration and precision of signals for the GLONASS system.” Khorishko referred all questions to Roscosmos, which did not respond to a request for comment last week.
Although the Cold War is long over, the Russians do not want to rely on the American GPS infrastructure because they remain suspicious of the United States’ military capabilities, security analysts say. That is why they have insisted on pressing ahead with their own system despite the high costs.
Washington and Moscow have been discussing for nearly a decade how and when to cooperate on civilian satellite-based navigation signals, particularly to ensure that the systems do not interfere with each other. Indeed, many smartphones and other consumer navigation systems sold in the United States today use data from both countries’ satellites.
In May 2012, Moscow requested that the United States allow the ground-monitoring stations on U.S. soil. U.S. technical and diplomatic officials have met several times to discuss the issue and have asked Russian officials for more information, said Harf, the State Department spokeswoman.
In the meantime, CIA analysts reviewed the proposal and concluded in a classified report this fall that allowing the Russian monitor stations here would raise counterintelligence and other security issues.
The State Department does not think that is a strong argument, said an administration official. “It doesn’t see them as a threat.”