House Panel Defends Spy Satellite Agency : Intelligence: Members assail senators who said National Reconnaissance Office hid the size and expense of its $310-million complex in Virginia.
In a sharp break with their Senate counterparts, members of the House Intelligence Committee defended the nation’s spy satellite agency Thursday against criticism that it hid the $310-million cost of a large new headquarters complex.
Saying Congress was kept informed of the National Reconnaissance Office project in Fairfax County, Va., the House members criticized senators who objected earlier this week to its size and expense. The House members said the Senate grandstanding had unfairly damaged the intelligence community.
“Charges of CIA or NRO deception are absolutely erroneous,” said Rep. Larry Combest of Texas, the committee’s ranking Republican. “Some people need to do their homework if they’re going to sit on these committees. They have to be responsible.”
Rep. David E. Skaggs (D-Colo.) referred to the “glib and unreasonable accusations made by members of the other body,” without specifically mentioning Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the panel’s ranking minority member. The two held a news conference Monday to announce their surprise at the four-building complex, triggering front-page stories about the matter.
Combest said the House Intelligence Committee had “much information . . . through both documents and staff briefings.” Because of the Senate complaints, he said, “The reputation of both the intelligence community and the Congress has been besmirched without cause.” House members did join the Senate in taking the NRO officials to task for not specifically identifying the cost of the building complex, but instead including estimates in various documents. Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) reminded NRO Deputy Director Jimmie Hill that he warned him some time ago “to give us a line-item budget.”
But criticism of the “other body” reached such a nasty point that Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.) asked CIA Director R. James Woolsey whether there had been any violation of classification laws by the Senate in releasing information on the project. NRO officials reassured him that all the Senate materials had been properly cleared.
The House members gave Woolsey a warm reception that contrasted with his appearance Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where he drew repeated criticisms. DeConcini, who has been feuding with the director over several issues, is said by some House members to have raised the NRO issue as a way to embarrass Woolsey. Combest on Thursday said the “building issue has been lowered to what amounts to a public cat fight.”
A factor that may have contributed to the difference between the House and Senate reactions was the role of Martin C. Faga, who was NRO director from 1989 to 1993 when plans were taking shape for the headquarters complex and who previously was on the House committee’s staff.
Some additional information about the project came out during Thursday’s session. Woolsey and Roger Marsh, NRO’s project manager, said the contracts on the complex were competitively awarded. Marsh also said aerospace giant Rockwell Corp. would not earn any fees for serving as a cover to hide NRO’s presence.
Woolsey got a chance to explain why the NRO budget has remained steady in the post-Cold War period while other intelligence and defense agencies are taking cuts of 15% or more. “In the mid-90s we require some investment,” Woolsey said, “but the savings will come later on.”
NRO Director Jeffrey Harris apologized Thursday for not breaking out the costs of the building in the agency’s operations budget.