White House Kept in Dark on $310-Million Spy Office
The Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department concealed the cost and size of a massive headquarters for their clandestine spy satellite operations not only from Congress but also from the White House, officials acknowledged Tuesday.
The agencies were so successful in hiding even the identity of the $310-million structure, being built in plain view on a 68-acre site near Dulles International Airport outside Washington, that Leon E. Panetta, former director of the White House Office of Management and Budget and now President Clinton’s chief of staff, had no idea that the four office towers belonged to the government.
The 1-million-square-foot project, originally authorized in 1990, has been under construction for more than three years under cover of an office complex for the Los Angeles-based defense contractor, Rockwell International Corp.
Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the price tag of the complex is nearly double what his committee had been led to believe. He said committee members knew it was being constructed but that budget estimates and details were given to the committee piecemeal and buried in larger intelligence accounts.
President Clinton on Tuesday ordered an immediate inquiry into how and why details were kept from Congress and the White House. He also ordered the building project declassified, which means that construction and cost details will be released.
The budget, personnel and operations of the National Reconnaissance Office itself, however, will remain almost entirely secret.
The office, jointly operated by the Air Force and the CIA, for decades was officially classified and its name could not be uttered in public without violating government secrecy regulations. The existence of the satellite operation was not acknowledged publicly until 1992.
The new facility was discovered by auditors for DeConcini’s committee during a review of construction projects for the intelligence community.
DeConcini told Clinton, Panetta and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake about the project during a meeting last week. He said all three were “caught by surprise” and that Panetta, who is known for his mastery of the federal budget, was amazed that so large a facility could be funded in such secrecy.
DeConcini urged Clinton to name independent auditors to conduct an inquiry into the project but the President instead put the review in the hands of the CIA and the Pentagon, who were responsible for hiding the project’s spending in their budgets.
White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers defended the decision to put the two agencies in charge of investigating themselves, saying the President has confidence in the integrity of CIA chief R. James Woolsey and Deputy Defense Secretary John M. Deutch, who will supervise the internal inquiry. Both men are Clinton appointees.
DeConcini, still fuming at the concealment by the intelligence agencies, said he has no idea whether the investigation will uncover other multimillion-dollar clandestine operations.
“For all we know, they might have a battleship floating around out in the Pacific with a bunch of communications on it that we don’t know about,” the senator said Tuesday.
DeConcini raised the question of whether Woolsey himself may have been kept in the dark about the project by his own agency. If the CIA director had known about it, DeConcini said, “I can’t imagine Woolsey being so foolish as to not report it to us.”
A CIA spokesman declined to comment, referring all questions to the National Reconnaissance Office, which said in a brief statement that the building was begun in 1990, two years before the office’s existence was declassified. The agency said the facility, when completed in 1996, will house approximately 3,000 employees who now work in offices scattered around the Washington area.
The complex will include office space, a cafeteria, conference facilities, a generator building and “other support functions,” the statement said. “The building is intended to support the NRO mission of meeting U.S. government space-borne intelligence reconnaissance needs. . . . No other information about the NRO or this project has been declassified,” the statement added.
The towers, three of which already have been enclosed in glass skins, are in clear sight of Virginia Route 28, a major highway in the suburban area. The only identification is a sign that says “Rockwell” and gives the site’s address. Fairfax County officials and local residents were told that it was a private office project for the defense contractor, a fiction created by the spy agencies to conceal the buildings’ true purpose.
A Rockwell spokesman in Los Angeles said only that: “Rockwell is constructing a facility in Northern Virginia to support certain government contract activities of our defense electronics business. Construction work on the project is being performed by CISCO, a Rocwkwell subsidiary.” The spokesman, William Blanning, said that all further details are classified.
Over the past four years, Rockwell has paid more than $1.5 million in property taxes on the office complex to preserve the impression that the buildings were not a federal installation, according to the Washington Post.
The Los Angeles firm has paid Fairfax County, Va., $1.57 million in property taxes on the 68-acre tract. It could not be determined whether government funds were used to pay the taxes or whether Rockwell used its own money, the newspaper said. The county values the site at $80.2 million. The 1994 tax bill on the property is $931,841, half of which Rockwell paid last month. As a federal government facility, the project would have been exempt from local taxes.
Both the House and Senate intelligence committees plan to examine the project in hearings today.