Spy building is no Clancy thriller

August 17, 1994|By Les Blumenthal

Washington -- A HEADY LITTLE scandal involving a super-secret spy facility in Northern Virginia started to brew last week -- that is, until Rep. Norm Dicks stood up and accused a U.S. senator of manipulating it to further his personal vendetta against the director of the CIA.

The flap over the $310 million National Reconnaissance Office had all the earmarks of a top-notch Washington thriller, an out-of-control black budget project with the CIA and the Department of Defense keeping Congress in the dark. Senators were outraged, the Clinton White House was caught off-guard, and you could almost feel the heat from television klieg lights as hearings were scheduled.

The problem was, none of it was true.

"In this case, the premise of this intriguing story has been that the intelligence agencies deliberately hood-winked the congressional committees and proceeded to construct a palatial headquarters for a super-secret spy agency beneath the cloak of darkness," Mr. Dicks said. "That may provide the setting for chapter one of Tom Clancy's next novel, but it is, nevertheless, fiction."

Mr. Dicks, who is in line to become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee next year, has spent enough time in Washington to know the rules of the game, and one of them is to tread lightly when criticizing another member of Congress.

But the Washington Democrat showed no hesitation about going after Arizona Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini.

Mr. DeConcini, the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, angrily insisted the CIA, the Defense Department and the National Reconnaissance Office had hidden the size and cost of the project from his committee.

Mr. DeConcini has been involved in a terribly bitter battle with CIA Director James Woolsey and was using questions about the new NRO headquarters as a way to settle a score, Mr. Dicks said.

"There has been bad blood between them and they have been going toe-to-toe for six months," Mr. Dicks said, adding that Mr. DeConcini has previously called for Mr. Woolsey's resignation.

Mr. Dicks has emerged as a staunch defender of Mr. Woolsey, a stance that is bound to increase his credibility and ties to the intelligence community at a time when he will become, if re-elected, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

The congressman was also sending a clear message to Mr. DeConcini that the dispute had gotten out of hand and was threatening to do serious damage to the CIA, the Clinton administration and the congressional intelligence committees.

"Dicks and others wanted to let DeConcini know he had gone far enough," one congressional source said.

Mr. Dicks quickly dug up documents that showed the Senate panel had been fully informed about the NRO project since 1989, was well aware the cost had grown to more than $300 million and, in late 1992, had even agreed to accelerate the project.

Until two years ago, the very existence of the nation's spy-satellite agency had been classified. The NRO keeps track of the very stuff of Clancy novels, the super-sophisticated real-time spy satellites that can read a license plate from space or focus in on the water pits where North Korea stores its spent nuclear fuel.

Both the Defense Department and the CIA oversee the agency, whose offices have been scattered across the United States. The new facility, on a 68-acre tract about 30 miles south of Washington, was designed to consolidate all of NRO's operations in a single location. Because of its mission, the buildings would have to be safe not only from physical threats, but also from state-of-the-art electronic eavesdropping.

Rockwell International Corp., one of the nation's top defense contractors, provided the cover for the project by purchasing the land and securing the necessary construction permits. The sign on the road leading to the site says simply "Rockwell."

Early last week, Mr. DeConcini and Virginia Sen. John Warner, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, held a news conference in which they charged that NRO concealed from Congress the size and cost of the facility.

"In our preliminary judgment, we do not feel we were properly notified," Mr. DeConcini said testily.

"I was astonished by its magnitude. . . . Somehow this project slipped up the middle," Mr. Warner said.

What Mr. Warner didn't say was that when the project was being planned, he wanted to announce it publicly because it involved several thousand jobs.

Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has kept a low-profile on the NRO issue, though an aide said he was caught off guard by the cost of the facility.

Despite the statements from Sens. DeConcini, Warner and other members of the Senate Committee, Rep. Dicks, within hours, produced a paper trail showing the Senate panel had been kept fully informed about the project.

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