The day of the spy-in-the-sky approach to intelligence gathering may be coming to an end, plagued by cost overruns and systems so complex they take too long to perfect and probably, most importantly, are increasingly less useful in the age of terrorism.
That was the clear signal sent out by National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell recently when he canceled the multibillion-dollar Misty system being developed by Lockheed Martin.
Mr. McConnell didn't say so, but one can only hope the satellite technology that has held sway in the CIA and Pentagon so ineffectively will be replaced by more emphasis on human resources. The satellites work best when keeping a magic eye on fixed military installations and the movement of large groups but not so well in locating small units and individuals.
The age of electronic spying began because of exciting technology that fired the imagination and promised unlimited possibilities without the stigma of traditional cloak-and-dagger operations that might go wrong. This was a much cleaner approach. But the almost total reliance on it came because the CIA was concerned about its image and the reprisals from Congress for a host of illegalities propounded by its special-operations branch. The clandestine unit, always considered the tail that wagged the agency's much larger analytical operations, was decimated in the aftermath of congressional investigations in the '70s. Then-Director William Colby decided that moving to electronic spying might be the only way to save the agency.
The inadequacy of this approach was certified first by the CIA's inability to locate hostages held by radical, Iranian-sponsored Muslim groups in Lebanon, a failure that hugely affected U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and brought about the Iran-Contra scandal. The assets needed to locate the hostages and to determine when and where terrorists might strike were unavailable when they were most needed. Spy satellites could not determine, for instance, when Iranian revolutionaries might take over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
The satellite systems also have become increasingly vulnerable to destruction. The Chinese already have fired a missile from a mobile launcher and knocked down a test satellite at medium range, and there is every indication other nations have developed or are coming close to perfecting similar methods of getting out from under the electronic surveillance. Development of smaller satellites, like the Misty, has been difficult because the size limits the amount of equipment they can carry.
Furthermore, the Air Force reportedly is working on a new high-altitude reconnaissance plane that can fly closer to the target and at 6 times the speed of sound. Past U.S. success with high-altitude spy planes like the U-2 and the Blackbird have been noteworthy, including the images that made it clear Cuba was about to install Soviet missiles during the Kennedy administration. But these aircraft were primitive in their abilities compared to the newest generation of planes, manned and unmanned. The great speeds also presumably would make them far more difficult to destroy than the conventional satellites despite being nearer to ground-to-air missiles.
Added to the other problems is the huge price tag of the satellite approach and the fact it is less and less relied on. Under those circumstances, Congress is increasingly reluctant to finance these major outlays without strong evidence they still play a major role. Mr. McConnell also has taken public exception to the way the American satellite industry compares to that of Europe, where he contends they are built much faster and at considerably lower cost.
Obviously, there are other, top-secret electronic technologies that are of great use in the struggle for more and better intelligence. Mr. McConnell clearly understands that.
One would hope a major factor in the intelligence director's decision to cancel the new system is his recognition of the need to develop human resources, including a restoration of the CIA's in-country networks, as about the only effective means of heading off further terrorist attacks such as those of September 11, 2001. With no ability to infiltrate the families and cultures of the Middle East, there is really very little one can do to prevent terrorists collectively or individually from more atrocities. Certainly satellites can't do it.
Mr. McConnell's announcement that he was dumping the new system before it came online seems also to have another aspect. It attests to his standing as head of all U.S. intelligence, a position often considered more title than substance.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.