It is no surprise that with Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House, the result is disarray in the intelligence community. When they’re not bashing or de-funding, they’re investigating. It’s a wonder they’ve found time to mess up spy satellite policy.
But they have. Embedded in the new defense policy bill - which is awaiting the president’s signature - are the latest mixed messages about plans to use satellites to keep track of our enemies. If left untended, the tangle could undermine intelligence for years to come.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency recently issued a classified request to companies that operate private imaging satellites asking what further they can do to augment the existing U.S. spy satellite system, according to a Congress Daily report confirmed by intelligence community sources. Already integral to the nation’s intelligence satellite system, this move to buy more commercial satellite imagery appears to be part of Obama administration plans to have such data supplement new National Reconnaissance Office satellites capable of greater detail than available commercially.
But congressional action supported by the administration is at odds with this effort. A provision in the 2010 defense authorization legislation directs the Defense Department to develop two of its own commercial-grade optical satellites. These could compete with commercial data, crippling private investment that directly benefits the U.S. military and intelligence agencies.
Further complicating matters is language in the defense authorization bill directing the Obama administration to review whether restrictions on the commercial sale of private satellite imagery should be loosened - potentially allowing the public sale of better quality data than is now available due to national security concerns.
These efforts come as Congress can’t decide on long-term plans to replace the nation’s intelligence satellites. The Obama administration has backed language in the House-version of the 2010 intelligence authorization ensuring the government buys more expensive satellites capable of higher quality images, supplementing it with private satellite data. A competing Senate plan, which is backed by many in the intelligence community, would instead buy a greater number of less expensive and technologically less sophisticated satellites, offering potentially greater coverage worldwide.
Creating a tangled mess of competing and contradictory satellite plans complicates both our ability to fight wars and to avoid them. In both Iran and North Korea, satellite surveillance is a key part of our ability to monitor nuclear programs and to persuade allies to back our anti-proliferation efforts. In Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re key infrastructure for command decisions made every day.
While getting satellites into space is rocket science, creating a plan to manage and build the intelligence satellite system isn’t. It has three parts: Encourage private investment that lets us take advantage of what the private sector can do best. Fill in the holes only where we must. Continue to improve our most powerful surveillance satellites as we replace them.
All Congress and the administration have to do is get on the same page.