WASHINGTON – The Justice Department (search) is considering a request to investigate the disclosure of secrets about an expensive U.S. spy satellite (search) project criticized by some senior Democratic senators, a law enforcement official says.
The formal request for a leaks investigation would target people who described sensitive details about a new generation of spy satellites to The Washington Post, which published a page-one story about the controversial espionage program Saturday, said this official, speaking Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
The Justice Department has not yet determined whether classified information was leaked and has not decided whether to investigate, the official said.
The request came from an unspecified intelligence agency.
Under Justice guidelines, prosecutors review such requests to ensure they meet strict requirements — such as whether the information was properly classified — before launching a criminal investigation. They also ask the requesting agency for a list of everyone with authorized access to the information and whether the agency is willing to disclose enough information to support a criminal trial.
The Washington Post's executive editor, Leonard Downie (search), said the newspaper does not discuss its sources.
Disclosures about the project emerged after stinging criticism of its cost and effectiveness last week from Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, and three other senators on the panel.
Rockefeller complained that the program — which he declined to describe in detail — was expensive, unjustified and wasteful, and he pledged to keep trying to kill it.
The program is aimed at making surveillance satellites difficult to detect and uses new technology to reduce their size, among other means, said one official familiar with the program, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. Under way for nearly a decade, the project is aimed at producing fully capable spy satellites that could fit in a car trunk, this official said.
Rockefeller complained the program was "stunningly expensive." The Post reported Saturday its projected cost has nearly doubled from $5 billion to nearly $9.5 billion.
The National Reconnaissance Office, which designs, builds and operates a constellation of U.S. spy satellites, declined to comment.
Rockefeller and the other Democrats — Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois, Carl Levin of Michigan and Ron Wyden of Oregon — all refused last week to sign a compromise bill that was part of Congress' new blueprint for U.S. intelligence spending. The Senate nevertheless voted to send the program to President Bush for approval.
The Senate Ethics Committee might be asked to determine whether Rockefeller, Wyden and Durbin disclosed any sensitive information and should face sanctions, a congressional aide said. Intelligence Committee rules prohibit members from disclosing intelligence information or discussing what happened in closed, executive sessions.
Levin has made no public criticism of the program. Rockefeller and Wyden each described congressional votes during the preceding two years to kill the disputed program. Durbin, during an interview Sunday with ABC's "This Week," alluded to the secret dispute within Congress.
"Eventually some information will come out," Durbin told ABC. "But it does point to the weakness in the whole process. It takes a leak to understand that billions of taxpayers' dollars are being wasted that could be spent to make America safer."
Aides to Rockefeller, Wyden and Durbin declined to comment Tuesday.
Wyden has said the project was no longer necessary because of changed capabilities of U.S. enemies, adding that other U.S. intelligence programs can perform the same function for less money and risk. He said senators were concerned about how the government contract was awarded. Auditors believe the program will exceed its proposed budgets "by enormous amounts of money," Wyden said.