WASHINGTON – Spy chief Mike McConnell has junked a multibillion-dollar spy satellite program that engineers hoped would someday pass undetected through the space above other nations.
The move from the director of national intelligence comes after several years of congressional efforts to kill the program, known publicly as the next generation of "Misty" satellites. The new satellite was to be a stealthy intelligence spacecraft designed to take pictures of adversaries and avoid detection.
Little is known about the nation's classified network of satellites, which represent some of the most expensive government programs and receive almost no public oversight. Because of their multibillion-dollar price tags, sensitive missions and lengthy development schedules, spy agencies go to great pains to keep details from becoming public.
McConnell gave no reason for his recent decision. Despite the program's secrecy, he almost dared further inquiry into it.
Speaking Tuesday to an intelligence conference on workplace diversity, McConnell changed the subject and ended his speech by saying: "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.
Asked during a Q&A session to elaborate on which program he cut, McConnell declined to comment. His spokesman Steve Shaw also declined to comment on Thursday, but he noted that the director had the power to make this type of budget decision.
Loren Thompson, a defense expert with the Lexington Institute, said he was told by an industry source this month that the program to build the Misty satellites was ending. He said the satellite's true name is not publicly known, but it has been assigned a designation of a letter followed by numbers.
The Associated Press separately confirmed the program was cut.
"People are thinking it is just not worth the huge amount of money it is sucking in," Thompson said.
Speaking generally, Thompson said promises of faster, smaller, cheaper satellites — hopes that became common during the Clinton administration — have been confounded by the laws of physics. The technology simply wasn't able to meet expectations.
The new generation of Misty satellites was born from the belief that stealth technology would be crucial to deceiving adversaries, since many states are aware when U.S. satellites are passing overhead and can change their behavior accordingly.
Yet the threat has changed in recent years, as the United States became more concerned about difficult-to-track terror cells and underground sites for nuclear programs run by countries such as Iran and North Korea.
"The entire imagery architecture that is in space or under development was conceived prior to 9/11. Changes in the threat have led to a re-evaluation of the threat," Thompson said.
The first satellite launched in the Misty family was disclosed by military and space expert Jeffrey Richelson in his 2001 book, "The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology." That first Misty satellite was launched from the space shuttle Atlantis in March 1990, he wrote.
In an interview, Richelson said a second satellite was launched in 1999. But as insiders debated whether to continue to build the third, some officials didn't think it was worth the money because other satellites could fulfill the role at less cost, said Richelson, a senior fellow with the National Security Archive.
In 2004, an unidentified government agency asked the Justice Department to open a leaks investigation after The Washington Post reported that the program's projected cost had almost doubled from $5 billion to nearly $9.5 billion.
Rick Oborn, a spokesman for the tightlipped National Reconnaissance Office, declined to comment on McConnell's decision. His Northern Virginia-based agency is responsible for designing, building and operating a constellation of U.S. spy satellites.
Those spacecraft are built by American companies contracted by agencies including CIA and NRO and by the Air Force. A spokesman for Lockheed Martin, which is believed to be the lead contractor on this program, declined to comment on McConnell's decision.
The pricey program has been a source of controversy in Congress.
In the House's intelligence budget bill approved last month, lawmakers agreed to end a satellite program that they had supported before, according to New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee's panel on technical intelligence. "We had to make some decisions without a lot of good alternatives," she said in an interview.
The details are in the classified portion of the bill, and Wilson would not confirm that it was a next-generation Misty satellite. But Wilson, a former Air Force officer, said McConnell's decision was part of ongoing discussions among his advisers, the House committee and the Defense Department. "There was a great deal of communication," she said.
Wilson said the government does not have to walk away from the entire amount sunk into the program. Rather, she said, some of the technology can be harvested and used in other programs. She declined to offer any details.
Wilson praised McConnell's early moves but said the key factors in his decision to end the program predated his arrival as intelligence chief in February. "I think it is the conclusion that most of the folks involved had come to — based on cost, schedule and performance. It was a conclusion that everyone was coming to at about the same time," she said.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, could not be reached for comment.
The panel's top Republican, Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, said he is not looking for a decision on a single program from McConnell and his advisers. He wants to see leadership.
"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?"
Hoekstra would not identify the program McConnell said was being cut and said he remains doubtful it is truly gone. He said its congressional allies could find a way to bring it back to life through a bill. He also noted that the White House has not sent a revised version of its budget to Congress reflecting McConnell's change.
Hoekstra also criticized how McConnell made his decision public. "I don't think the way you go about announcing major policy decision is to make a flippant comment to a group that you are speaking to about diversity," he said.