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CIA fears Russian GPS on American soil could be used to spy

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Russian Federal Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS) deputy head Sergey Saveliev (2nd L) and Brazilian Space Agency head Jose Raimundo Coelho (4th L, light suit) preside over the inauguration of the first monitoring station of Russia's GLONASS global navigation system outside of Russia, on the University of Brasilia campus in Brasilia February 19, 2013. (Reuters)

The Central Intelligence Agency fears Russia's space agency is using half a dozen monitor stations on U.S. soil to spy and to help improve the accuracy of their weapons, several American officials told The New York Times.

The monitor stations are being used to improve Moscow’s version of the Global Positioning System (GPS), the American satellite network used both to help citizens find the nearest coffee shop and steer guided missiles to their targets. But concerned about Russia's other uses for the system, the CIA is campaigning to stop the State Department from allowing Roscosmos to build the stations.

'I would like to understand why the United States would be interested in enabling a GPS competitor, when the world’s reliance on GPS is a clear advantage to the United States on multiple levels.'

- Representative Mike D. Rogers

“They don’t want to be reliant on the American system and believe that their systems, like GPS, will spawn other industries and applications,” said a former senior official in the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology. “They feel as though they are losing a technological edge to us in an important market. Look at everything GPS has done on things like your phone and the movement of planes and ships.”

Permitting the Russians to build the stations would help ease the tension between President Vladimir Putin’s government and the Obama administration, after Moscow granted asylum to Snowden and backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The CIA, other American spy agencies and the Pentagon take issue with the State Department’s decision to allow the Russians to host the stations on American soil. The stations would not only allow the Russians to continue to develop greater accuracy of Moscow’s satellite-steered weapons but also give the Russians the ability to spy on the United States within its borders, they say.

The disagreement between the CIA and the State Department has also caused concerns on Capitol Hill. Members of the intelligence and armed services committees are demanding answers from the administration regarding Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass), Moscow’s global positioning network.

“I would like to understand why the United States would be interested in enabling a GPS competitor, like Russian Glonass, when the world’s reliance on GPS is a clear advantage to the United States on multiple levels,” said Representative Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., the chairman of a House Armed Services subcommittee.

The Russians are not alone in their effort to improve this technology; China and the European Union nations are working on improving their own global positioning systems in order to compete with United States.

Russia positioned a station in Brazil earlier this year, and Russian news agencies report agreements are soon to be reached with Spain, Indonesia and Australia. The United States has stations around the world but not in Russia. 

No final decision was made between Russian and American negotiators who met on April 25 to weigh “general requirements for possible Glonass monitoring stations in U.S. territory and the scope of planned future discussions,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told The New York Times.

The Russian government also offered few details about the program. In a statement to The Times, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, Yevgeniy Khorishko, said that the stations were deployed “only to ensure calibration and precision of signals for the Glonass system.”

The Russians are suspicious of the United States’ military capabilities and do not want to rely on American GPS infrastructure despite the high costs of creating their system, security analysts say. Among their fears is the possibility for the U.S. to manipulate signals to send incorrect information to Russian armed forces.

The CIA concluded in a classified report this fall that allowing Russia to host monitor stations in the United States would raise counterintelligence and security issues.

The State Department does not think the CIA is correct in its assessment, and an administration official told The Times “it doesn’t see them as a threat.”

Washington and Moscow have been debating for nearly a decade how to cooperate on civilian satellite-based navigation signals. Most smartphones and other consumer navigation systems sold in the U.S. rely on data from both countries’ satellites.