NEW YORK — What is the hush-hush intelligence project that apparently costs a fortune and has angered key Democratic senators?
Intelligence experts speculate that the highly classified endeavor is a top-secret satellite that would, or perhaps already can, intercept and shut down other countries' spy satellites.
The debate over the project leaked into the open on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, when Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, publicly complained that an unnamed spy project was "totally unjustified and very, very wasteful and dangerous to the national security." He called the program "stunningly expensive."
Rockefeller and three other Democratic senators — Richard Durbin of Illinois, Carl Levin of Michigan and Ron Wyden of Oregon — refused to sign a congressional compromise negotiated by others in the House and Senate that provides for future U.S. intelligence activities. But Rockefeller declined to discuss the precise nature of the project, saying that would have to wait until the Senate could go into closed session.
After a frenzied round of press inquiries on Thursday, Rockefeller's office released a statement saying, "Any assertion about classified intelligence programs based on Senator Rockefeller's statement is wholly speculative."
The statement, which was characterized as a clarification of Rockefeller's remarks on the Senate floor, implied that he considered the project dangerous only because it was so costly.
"Senator Rockefeller's reference to this program, which was fully vetted and approved by security officials, makes the point that continuing to fund an enormously expensive, unjustified, and wasteful program is dangerous to our national security," the statement read. "He believes these funds should be spent on other far more critical intelligence programs."
Mum's the word
Other members of the committee and spokesmen at the nation's intelligence agencies declined to comment on the controversy.
“We have no comment on classified intelligence matters,” Paul Gimigliano, the CIA’s acting director of public affairs, told NBC News.
“Since Senator Rockefeller did not specify which program was involved or even identify which agency, we are not commenting,” said Rick Oborn, director of public affairs at the National Reconnaissance Office, which manages America’s spy satellites.
But that didn't stop the speculation. Even though much of the technology is highly classified, enough of it is out in the open that intelligence experts can comment on it, usually on condition of anonymity.
"It almost has to be a spy satellite," said Jeffrey T. Richelson, an intelligence historian who has written nearly a dozen books on spy technology. "The cost element Rockefeller talks about would indicate that."
Back in the 1990s, President Clinton helped kill earlier anti-satellite programs, also known as "asats." In those programs, U.S. satellites would take out foreign satellites using "space mines" or lasers.
But the current technology, according to intelligence experts, may be much more subtle. There have been various programs based on the technology, some unclassified and dressed up as U.S. defensive measures, others highly classified. One unclassified program, called the Counter Surveillance and Reconnaissance System (CSRS, pronounced "Scissors") was recently held up by Congress, according to Defense Daily.
The program was aimed at blocking an adversary's access to commercial or government space resources. It was one of a few concepts on the table for offensive counterspace operations, where the United States actively works to counter an adversary's access to space, said the paper.
"That program is stopped," Defense Daily quoted the Air Force Space Command's chief, Gen. Lance Lord, as saying. "The idea to look at that mission area is still open."
'Prowler' at work
The United States has long been interested in such offensive programs, launching an experimental and highly classified satellite called "Prowler" on the space shuttle Atlantis November 1990.
Prowler stealthily maneuvered close to Russian and presumably other nations’ communications satellites in high Earth orbit, 24,000 miles (38,400 kilometers) up. These satellites are ideal targets. They are at much higher altitudes, and thus difficult to track visually. Most of the key military satellites are in this orbit — relay satellites that transmit imagery uplinked from spy satellites, military communications satellites and electronic eavesdropping satellites that target terrestrial microwave communications.
Prowler gathered all manner of data on the high-Earth-orbit satellites: their size, measurements, radar signature, mass and the frequencies on which they relay their data. Now experts suggest that the United States may be trying to use, or has already succeeded in using, that stealth technology to "negate" an adversary's satellite communications.
A satellite using such technology would not have to jam the other satellite's signals, strictly speaking. Knowing how its communications systems were configured, the satellite could simply step in front of it and block its signals. In fact, one expert said Prowler did just that in tests using U.S. communications satellites, without being detected.
How close can such a U.S. satellite get to another satellite? Within about a foot (30 centimeters), the expert said. The Prowler technology could even allow the satellite to maneuver close to the target without receiving data from Earth. Once it came within a certain range of the target, it resorted to an internal computer program.
Is it war?
Many in the arms control community have long worried about such an anti-satellite program, saying that, particularly in time of crisis, such an operation could be construed as a hostile act and the first phase of a space war.
"The best asat is not a weapon that detonates next to an enemy satellite," said William E. Burrows of New York University, author of "Deep Black," a book on spy satellites. "Instead, it would be a signal that would tell the satellite to take the rest of the afternoon off."
Sending even defensive satellite weapons into orbit could start an arms race in space, warned John Pike, a defense analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, who has studied anti-satellite weapons for more than three decades. Pike said other countries would inevitably demand proof that any weapons were only defensive.
"It would present just absolutely insurmountable verification problems, because we are not going to let anybody look at our spy satellites," Pike said. "It is just not going to happen."
Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC News.