The United States is building a new generation of "stealth" spy satellites in a highly classified program that has provoked opposition from both Democrats and Republicans in closed...

Share story

WASHINGTON — The United States is building a new generation of “stealth” spy satellites in a highly classified program that has provoked opposition from both Democrats and Republicans in closed congressional sessions.

Lawmakers have questioned the necessity and escalating cost of the $9.5 billion program, which still would take photographs only in daylight and in clear weather, current and former government officials say.

The system, whose existence has not been offically disclosed, has almost doubled in projected cost from its original $5 billion, officials said. The National Reconnaissance Office, which manages spy-satellite programs, has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the program, officials said.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

CIA chief Porter Goss backed plan in House.

The stealth satellite, which would probably become the largest single-item expenditure in the $40 billion intelligence budget, is to be launched in the next five years and is meant to replace an existing stealth satellite, according to officials. Nonstealth satellites can be tracked and their orbits can be predicted, allowing countries to attempt to hide weapons or troop movements when the satellites are overhead.


Program criticized


Opponents of the new program, however, argue that the satellite is no longer a good match against today’s adversaries: terrorists seeking small quantities of illicit weapons, or countries such as North Korea and Iran, which are believed to have placed their nuclear-weapons programs underground and inside buildings to avoid detection from spy satellites and aircraft.

The National Reconnaissance Office and the CIA declined to comment. Lockheed Martin Corp., which sources said is the lead contractor on the project, said the company does not comment on its work in classified programs.

The satellite in question would be the third and final version in a series of spacecraft funded under a classified program once known as Misty, officials said.

Concerned about the latest satellite’s relevancy and escalating costs, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has twice tried to kill it, according to knowledgeable officials. The program has been strongly supported, however, by Senate and House appropriations committees; by the House intelligence committee, which was chaired by Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., until he recently became CIA director; and by his predecessor at the CIA, George Tenet.

“With the amount of money we’re talking about here, you could build a whole new CIA,” said one official, who, like others, talked about the program and the debate on the condition of anonymity.

In an attempt to verbalize frustration while abiding by classification constraints, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D. W.Va., vice-chairman of the intelligence committee, made an unusual reference to his protest of the program on the Senate floor.

“My decision to take this somewhat unprecedented action is based solely on my 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 said.

“Because of the highly classified nature of the programs contained in the national intelligence budget, I cannot talk about them on the floor.”


Senator objects


Rockefeller said that the committee has voted “to terminate the program” for the past two years “only to be overruled” by the appropriations committees.

Some current and former government officials expressed concern that the disclosure of the highly classified program might hurt national security. They said some congressional Republicans were questioning whether Rockefeller’s statement and public hints by three other Senate Democrats opposed to the program, might violate congressional rules.

Rockefeller’s office said earlier in the week that the senator had consulted with security officials before making a carefully worded statement.

Other officials said the depth and intensity of opposition to the program, expressed behind closed doors for more than two years by Senate Republicans as well as Democrats, had tipped the balance between secrecy and candor in a way that has led to the extraordinary disclosure.

Earlier this week, Rockefeller and three other Senate Democrats, Carl Levin of Michigan; Richard Durbin of Illinois; and Ron Wyden of Oregon, refused to sign the “conference sheets” used by the House-Senate conference committee working on the 2005 intelligence authorization bill. Sources said that was meant to protest inclusion once again of the satellite program.

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.”

The existence of the maiden stealth satellite launched under the Misty program was first reported by Jeffrey 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.


2nd satellite launch

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.

There are many kinds of reconnaissance satellites, and some of them have the capability to acquire images at night and in cloudy weather. Officials have suggested that new technologies may also be able to detect the presence of objects underground. The sharpest images come from photo reconnaissance, but those satellites operate successfully only during the day and in sunny weather.

Officials critical of the new stealth-satellite program said it would have only photo-reconnaissance capability, though with high resolution.