More than two years ago, we noted Congressional attempts to kill a classified, multi-billion dollar intelligence satellite program purportedly nicknamed “Misty.” Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon was the leader of that effort, describing the stealth satellite as “ineffective, over-budget and too expensive.” Wyden’s discussion of the program–in open forums–sparked a security investigation, to see if classified information had been classified. Quite naturally, nothing ever came of the inquiry, and Senator Wyden remained a persistent critic of the program.
Now, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), retired Admiral Mike McConnell, has apparently fulfilled Mr. Wyden’s wishes. According to an AP story posted at GovernmentExecutive.com, McConnell hinted earlier this week that he had killed the satellite program, telling an intelligence conference on workplace diversity:
“I have been advised when I was getting ready for this job, you have to do two things: kill a multibillion-dollar program. Just did that. Word is not out yet. You’ll see soon.
And fire somebody important. So I’m searching,” he added in jest, getting a laugh from the crowd.
Defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute told the AP that he learned that the Misty program had been scrapped. The cancellation was also confirmed by other sources contacted by the wire service.
In some respects, McConnell saw the hand-writing on the wall. New Mexico Congresswoman Heather Wilson, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, said the panel agreed last month to end support for a satellite program it had previously supported. With costs for the program running almost 60% higher than originally estimated, some members of Congress saw “Misty” as being too expensive.
Details of the program cancellation are in a classified portion of the House Intelligence Budget bill, and Ms. Wilson would not confirm that Misty is the affected program. But, given its reported price tag and declining Congressional support, Misty was considered a likely target for cancellation.
But if the stealthy spy satellite program is gone, that raises an important question–what will replace it? With our foes growing increasingly knowledgeable about U.S. overhead reconnaissance systems, orbits and collection windows, intelligence officials viewed the Misty program as a means for collecting imagery covertly, defeating adversary denial and deception efforts. According to author (and intelligence community historian) Jeffrey Richelson, the first Misty satellite was launched from the space shuttle in 1990, and a second entered service in 1999.
Conventional thinking suggests that there are better–and cheaper–ways to collect imagery, using smaller and faster satellites. Yet, as Mr. Thompson notes, those systems have yet to realize their full potential. There’s also the issue of which platforms are best-suited to monitor the terrorist threat.
Former House Intel Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra of Michigan summed up the debate nicely when he observed that Admiral McConnell needs to show leadership on this issue. As he told the AP:
“I am looking for them to give us a strategy,” he said. “This program was there for a reason. What are you going to replace it with? How long is it going to take to develop it? What is the cost for this new program?”
Until Mr. Richelson wrote his book (and Senator Wyden began discussing it in the Senate), Misty was supposedly a black-world program, safeguarded so it could provide needed intelligence, without the knowledge of our enemies. In an era where timely, accurate imagery intelligence is needed more than ever, we can only hope that Admiral McConnell has a replacement in mind, and that its identity is better protected. As we’ve noted on previous occasions, some secrets are worth keeping, even in a democracy.
ADDENDUM: Richelson’s book The Wizards of Langley (which included the Misty disclosure) was written almost a decade ago, with the cooperation of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology. While many of the programs described in the book were dated–and based on declassified documents–disclosures about covert spy satellites provided more evidence of the poisonous “leak” culture that developed at Langley in the 1980s and 1990s. We can only wonder how much valuable intel data was lost because someone in the DS&T decided to “talk”–and got away with it.