McCain's Spy Satellite Clash Comes to an End

The Director of National Intelligence's office has sent Sen. John McCain's office its top secret report on the development of two "tier-two" electro-optical satellites that Congress doesn't want funded but the intelligence establishment believes it desperately needs. Neither McCain's office, the White House, nor the DNI would confirm that McCain was seeking information about the highly classified development program, nor would they say why it took so long to send McCain the report he requested.

McCain has released his hold on the nomination of Gen. James Clapper (ret.) to be the director of national intelligence.

In the 1990s, at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Clapper, President Obama's nominee for national intelligence director, was instrumental in pushing for so-called tier-two satellites  -- those in lower orbit, with lower fidelity, and costing much less that traditional "tier-one" birds, which provide higher resolution and are extremely expensive.

The current tier-two satellite program is informally known as "BASIC," and Lockheed Martin, the contractor, runs it in conjunction with the National Reconnaissance Office. Congress thinks it's cheaper to buy "tier-three" imagery from commercial satellites, and many battlefield commanders and intelligence planners find that the private imagery is more than sufficient for their operations.

Against the wishes of many Democrats in Congress, the Obama administration wants to add new technology to existing satellite models -- the KH-11 series that was first launched in the 1970s. The U.S. has placed 14 Keyhole (KH) satellites in orbit. These enhancements would allow the satellites to peer deep beneath the water and under ground and would be more useful for non-proliferation purposes (read: detecting missile launches) and tracking Chinese naval ships. In February, Obama's budget reportedly asked Congress to fund new "tier-one" birds.

The military argues that, at the very least, it needs to keep up with technological advancements. A few years ago, the DNI, Mike McConnell, managed to cut funding for a "stealth" satellite program that was supposed to be the successor to the current generation of "stealth" satellites, called MYSTY by the intelligence community and "MYSTIC" by the military.

A defense official requested that the Atlantic not divulge the name of the special access program that the new Obama satellites are being built under.

As a member of the Armed Services Committee, McCain would have access to the line items of the so-called "Classified SAP" appropriation, which would include money for new satellites, but he would not have access to an even more tightly controlled line item -- a true black budget. The so-called "Gang of 8" gets briefed on its contents and size. Rarely is the black black budget modified, and there has been considerable tension between Congress and the executive branch about what the money is used for.