Why McCain's Holding Up Clapper's Nomination

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Sen. John McCain feels stiffed by the White House, which has refused to respond to a letter he sent earlier this year asking about a top secret intelligence program, according to several sources with knowledge of McCain's complaint. 

He has decided to place a hold on Gen. James Clapper's nomination to be Director of National Intelligence (DNI)until the White House answers his questions, one of which involves a decade-old multi-billion dollar spy satellite program. One other question might involve something related to Clapper that happened before President Bush appointed him to become head of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

McCain's office wouldn't say what McCain needed to hear before he released the hold and neither his staff nor the DNI would comment on the subject matter because it is classified.

McCain, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, would be privy to limited information about intelligence birds and their capabilities, but he would lack access to specific information about the state of development of any program.

The National Reconnaissance Office, a Pentagon agency that runs the satellites, has been trying to figure out for years how to build and field satellites that are cost-efficient and effective for political and military intelligence needs. Two big efforts -- one called Future Imagery Architecture and another known by the acronym of BASIC -- have fallen prey to congressional skepticism, although their shells exist in some form. Congress has suspected that the Air Force and Navy have colluded with NRO to reprogram money.

Nonetheless, NRO continues to develop and test new satellite technology, including sophisticated sensors that can shield themselves from the prying eyes of rival intelligence services and spy satellite buffs. These sensors can be located far out in space to avoid detection and can be moved very quickly and self-destruct if they fail.

NRO keeps classified basic details like the size of images satellites can resolve -- a couple of inches across -- how quickly satellites can move to different orbits, and how deep in the ocean they can penetrate. Once a satellite program begins development, it's hard to kill it, a feat accomplished only once during the past several years, when former DNI Mike McConnell managed to force the NRO to stop developing a signals intelligence satellite that the National Security Agency did not need.

Other intelligence officials have noted that commercial satellites provide much of the same capabilities that NRO Imagery Intelligence satellites can. The U.S. government purchases billions of dollars' worth of private pictures each year from companies like GEOEYE.

Besides the secrecy, oversight is made more confusing by the way the national reconnaissance program is structured. The satellites are built by contractors, tasked by policy makers, managed by the Air Force (usually) and the Navy, physically operated by NRO, and analyzed by a variety of different agencies.

NRO is also revising its charter, a process that has led to interagency tension because the Air Force, in particular, is sensitive about giving NRO too much control over systems it operates.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the DNI position can't remain vacant during the upcoming congressional recess because the acting DNI plans to retire before Congress returns.

Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said: "We're eager to work with Senator McCain in an effort to answer additional questions beyond those already discussed, but we cannot accept further delay of this critical nomination."



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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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