The United States is building a new generation of spy satellites designed to orbit undetected, in a highly classified program that has provoked opposition in closed congressional sessions where lawmakers have questioned its necessity and rapidly escalating price, according to U.S. officials.
The previously undisclosed effort has almost doubled in projected cost — from $5 billion to nearly $9.5 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.
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. Non-stealth satellites can be tracked and their orbits can be predicted, allowing countries to attempt to hide weapons or troop movements on the ground when they are overhead.
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 specifically 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, issued a statement saying, "As a matter of policy we do not discuss what we may or may not be doing in regards to 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 J. Goss (R-Fla.) until he recently became CIA director, and by his predecessor, George J. 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 because of the project's sensitivity.
The debate over the secret program has been carried out in closed session on Capitol Hill, and no legislator has publicly acknowledged the existence of the program. Echoes of the heated discussion, however, have begun to emerge in public.
Earlier this week, four Democratic senators 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.
A statement by conference managers said only that four Democratic senators — John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), vice chairman of the intelligence committee; Carl M. Levin (Mich.); Richard J. Durbin (Ill.); and Ron Wyden (Ore.) — objected to a classified item in the bill "that they believe is unnecessary and the cost of which they believe is unjustified." It continued: "They believe that the funds for this item should be expended on other intelligence programs that will make a surer and greater contribution to national security." Some Republican lawmakers have concerns about the program as well, as do some senators on the Armed Service Committee, sources said.
In an attempt to verbalize frustration while abiding by classification constraints, Rockefeller made an unusual reference to his protest 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," Rockefeller said. "Because of the highly classified nature of the programs contained in the national intelligence budget, I cannot talk about them on the floor."
Rockefeller added that the committee has voted "to terminate the program" for the past two years "only to be overruled" by the appropriations committees.
A small firestorm followed, with at least one radio talk show host and callers to Rockefeller's office charging that he had divulged classified information. On Thursday, spokeswoman Wendi Morigi issued what she called a clarification. "Any assertion about classified intelligence programs based on Senator Rockefeller's statement is wholly speculative," the statement said. It said Rockefeller's floor statement had been "fully vetted and approved by security officials."
That statement illustrates the constraints faced by members of Congress as they work to adjust or terminate even multibillion-dollar programs that are hidden from public scrutiny and debate.
There have been other hints of problems in satellite programs in the last year.
Several months ago, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the intelligence committee, made a cryptic reference to the value of expensive satellite programs during testimony on her intelligence reform proposal.
"I can't go into this, but when we look at satellites, one or the other of us has questions," she told her colleagues. "I'm concerned these are tens-of-billions-of-dollar items and we sure as heck better know what we're doing."
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."
But, Pike said, "the cover and deception going on today is more systematic and continual. It's not the 'duck and cover' of the Soviet era."
The existence of the maiden stealth satellite launched under the Misty program was first reported by Jeffrey T. 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.
Amateur space trackers in England and Canada were able to detect it at points after that, Richelson reported.
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.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.