CIA, Senate panel clash over new spy building

August 11, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The nation's spymasters and their Senate overseers clashed yesterday over who knew what and when about a new $310 million intelligence agency headquarters masquerading as a private office complex in Northern Virginia.

At an unusual open meeting of the secretive Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the chairman, Sen. Dennis DeConcini, an Arizona Democrat, said he was "outraged" by the "minimal notification" his panel had been given about the million-square-foot headquarters of the National Reconnaissance Office, the nation's satellite espionage agency.

Since the development began four years ago, the four-block headquarters, near Dulles International Airport, has been publicly presented as an office complex for Rockwell International Corp, a defense contractor -- a subterfuge that produced a blast of Senate anger when it was revealed this week.

When construction is completed in 1996, the complex will house roughly 1,700 employees of the NRO, which until 1992 was so secret that its existence was not not publicly acknowledged. It could not be named, and its funding is still buried in the deepest recesses of the Defense Department's general outlays.

The NRO develops and operates espionage satellites and ground data collection stations. It is part of the National Foreign Intelligence Program, administered by the Pentagon and the CIA.

With its better-known sister intelligence agencies -- the CIA, the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency -- it collects and analyzes data on intelligence targets for U.S. policy-makers.

President Clinton was praised by committee members for declassifying the issue of the NRO's new headquarters, clearing the way for yesterday's public hearing. Mr. Clinton has ordered a review of the contracting and funding of the project.

"The administration could have kept this classified for years more, and we would be having this session in secret, and the public would be none the wiser about how their money is being spent," said Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat who praised the declassification decision as "courageous and wise."

CIA Director R. James Woolsey and Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch were summoned before the committee yesterday to explain how such a project could have been funded without nTC specific congressional authorization. In a joint statement they asserted that the administration "has no interest in avoiding discussion of this project."

They produced a thick dossier detailing briefings to the Senate panel as far back as 1989 on the project and also revealed previously secret responses to written questions by committee members.

These included the size and estimated cost of the project, which grew from a two-block development to four blocks as the CIA decided to house the entire satellite spying operation in the Washington suburbs.

The last cost estimate given to the committee was $347 million, $37 million higher than the current $310 million cost of the development.

Among the documents released yesterday was a letter from Jeffrey K. Harris, director of the NRO, to Mr. DeConcini, saying: "Our report card is mixed with regard to the information conveyed to the committee. However, at no time do I believe it was the NRO's intent to obfuscate the costs or any other data associated with the project."

Mr. Woolsey, noting that the development began at a time when the NRO's existence had not been publicly acknowledged, said: "If this [complex] were begun today . . . there's no question it would be done differently."

The administration's dossier did little to weaken the senators' complaints that they were kept in the dark about an expensive intelligence project. According to Mr. DeConcini, the information provided by the NRO since 1989 had been "inconsistent or incomplete."

Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, an Ohio Democrat and one of the harshest of Mr. Woolsey's critics, said, "We need to root out the obsession with secrecy that treats legitimate overseers within the government as enemies rather than partners.

"We need to ask ourselves whether the NRO headquarters problem was just a little problem that can be fixed with a few new rules, or whether it is symptomatic of an unwillingness to break with Cold War habits."

Republican Sen. John W. Warner, in whose home state of Virginia the new NRO complex is located, said the committee should exercise "self-examination" over whether its oversight of the funding of the complex had been forceful enough.

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