New home for the nation's spies

August 11, 1994

During the Cold War, the threat of communism seemed to justify almost any expense on behalf of the battle of wits between U.S. intelligence agencies and the country's enemies abroad. Huge outlays earmarked for spying routinely were cloaked under innocuous-sounding items in the defense department budget. Perhaps even larger sums -- the exact figures are still unknown -- never appeared at all, having been secreted away in the Pentagon's so-called "black" budget for projects so sensitive that their very existence was denied.

The uproar this week over news reports that the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates the nation's super-secret spy satellites, is constructing a $310 million office complex near Dulles Airport outside Washington that not even Congress knew about offers further evidence that old habits die hard. On Monday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dennis DeConcini and other members of the panel charged that the CIA and Pentagon had deliberately withheld information on the project.

Senator DeConcini has been embroiled in a long-running controversy with CIA Director James Woolsey, whom Mr. DeConcini has criticized publicly for the way he has set the nation's intelligence priorities and for his handling of former CIA counterintelligence chief Aldrich Ames, who pleaded guilty to spying for Russia earlier this year. A statement Tuesday by the vice-chairman of the Senate panel's counterpart in the House only further muddied the waters. Rep. Norm Dicks, the second-ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said his panel has been fully informed of the details of the NRO project since 1991.

This week's revelations go to the heart of the debate over the role of the intelligence community in the post-Cold War world. Critics say the profligate spending on intelligence activities of previous decades is neither justifiable after the collapse of communism, nor sustainable given today's parlous economic climate. They also point to the legitimate threat of a bureaucracy run amok, unaccountable to the public or its elected representatives.

Only the naive would claim that spying is no longer necessary. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. The post Cold-War world is still a very dangerous place, and America's ability to meet today's threats depends more than ever on the kind of super-sophisticated technology operated by the nation's intelligence community. But there is also great danger in the abuse of vast resources. The NRO's newest spy palace outside Washington appears to be a prime example of just such abuse.

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