updated 12/14/2004 10:04:36 PM ET 2004-12-15T03:04:36

The Justice Department has been asked to investigate who disclosed secret details about a mysterious and expensive U.S. spy satellite project, a federal law enforcement official said Tuesday.

The request came from an unspecified intelligence agency.

Under Justice guidelines, prosecutors must review such requests and ensure they meet strict requirements — such as whether the information had been properly classified — before they agree to begin a criminal investigation.

The Justice Department has not yet determined whether classified information was leaked and has not decided whether to investigate, said the official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, because the case involves highly classified information.

If an investigation is approved, the official said, it would target people who described sensitive details about the satellite to The Washington Post, which published a story Saturday.

The Washington Post’s executive editor, Leonard Downie, said the newspaper does not discuss its sources.

Another high-profile leak case
The Justice Department already has a high-profile leak investigation under way. It is probing who in the Bush administration disclosed the name of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame.

Her name was published in a 2003 column by Robert Novak, who cited two senior administration officials as his sources. Since then, Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller of The New York Times have been held in contempt for refusing to disclose their confidential sources.

Disclosures about the satellite project emerged after stinging criticism about its cost and effectiveness. The harsh comments came from West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, and other Democrats on the panel.

Rockefeller complained that the program — which he declined to describe in detail — was “stunningly expensive,” unjustified and wasteful, and he pledged to continue efforts to kill it.

The Post reported Saturday that the program is aimed at making surveillance satellites less detectable. It said the program’s projected cost has nearly doubled from $5 billion to nearly $9.5 billion and that it was being operated by the National Reconnaissance Office under the code name “Misty.”

The National Reconnaissance Office, which designs, builds and operates a constellation of U.S. spy satellites, declined to comment.

Rockefeller and the other Democrats — Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois, Carl Levin of Michigan and Ron Wyden of Oregon — all refused last week to sign a compromise bill that was part of Congress’ new blueprint for U.S. intelligence spending. Despite their complaints, the Senate voted to send the bill including the disputed program to President Bush for approval.

Rockefeller and Wyden have described congressional votes during the preceding two years to kill the disputed program. Durbin also went on a Sunday talk show and alluded to the project.

Wyden said in a Senate speech that the project was no longer necessary because of changed capabilities of U.S. enemies, adding that other U.S. intelligence programs can perform the same function for less money and risk. He said senators were concerned about how the government contract was awarded. Auditors believe the program will exceed its proposed budgets “by enormous amounts of money,” Wyden said.

The Senate Ethics Committee might be asked to determine whether Rockefeller, Wyden and Durbin disclosed any sensitive information and should face sanctions, a congressional aide said. Levin has made no public criticism of the program. Intelligence Committee rules prohibit members from disclosing intelligence information or discussing what happened in closed, executive sessions.

Aides to Rockefeller, Wyden and Durbin declined to comment Tuesday.

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